The Only Way Out

The only way out is through. I’ve been familiar with that truism for so long that it almost always springs to mind when I learn of someone who’s going through a difficult time. Whether physical, emotional, social, or spiritual, people just want to be “done.” They want the pain, uneasiness, anxiety, heartache, trauma, or ____________ to end. But it’s not that easy. Like Frost says, “I can see no way out but through.” 

And you have to get through. That’s where the good stuff is—the light, the victory, the prize, the A, the blue ribbon, the accomplishment, the baby, the increased confidence.

Last week we went on a triple date to see Midway. Afterwards we went to Top Dawg at Sandhills to discuss the movie over a late lunch. I kept thinking about a scene that had impressed me and tentatively mentioned it to the five at the table, tentatively because I thought they might think it was sappy or sentimental.  

Dick Best, a dive bomber, is leaving for Midway and having a conversation with his gunner who is scared stiff of what might lie ahead. Best seems annoyed with the young man and heads toward the exit. But then he stops, turns around, and speaks his truth. He tells the gunner that he can stay right there on the ship if he wants to, but that later he’ll remember the moment when he decided to let his fear prevent him from fulfilling part of his destiny. He’ll remember that while others were fighting for their country, he was sitting below deck nursing his dread and succumbing to panic. 

Those weren’t exactly Best’s words, but that’s the gist of his remarks. His gunner suits up. The following scenes are traumatic and terrifying. And yet, what could the men do? The only way out was through. 

Everyone in the booth at Top Dawg agreed that the scene taught a powerful lesson. One of the men went so far as to say that was one of the most important things for all people to consider when they think of quitting, turning away, giving up, or taking the path of least resistance. Although the scene portraying the conversation between Best and his gunner took less a minute, it made me realize that a person’s life could be turned around by hearing the right words from the right person at the right time.

I’ll never fly a bombing mission…too old—and a fraidy cat to boot. But like everyone reading this, I’ve realized the truth of The only way out is through many times.

One incident took place early one August morning when I was in labor with my first child. The pains became increasingly unpleasant (understatement) and closer together, and I turned toward my husband and said, “I don’t think I can do this any longer.” It’s been decades, but as well as I can recall, he didn’t say anything, just gave me a helpless look. I mean really, what could he or anyone else in the room say? I was in it for the duration. There was no backing out. The only way out was through.

My first beautiful daughter was born about four hours later–a miracle, a treasure, a delight well worth any discomfort.

When younger, my brothers and I participated in a few marathons and half-marathons. In fact, the baby mentioned in the above paragraph signed up for a Team in Training Marathon for the Leukemia Society. It was to take place in Alaska on June 21, and it sounded like a fun thing to do. I registered. So did about four dozen other people from the Myrtle Beach area. We went to motivational lectures, walked/jogged/ran with our would-be marathoners, and had yard sales and other fundraisers to collect the $3,200 (each) to participate. The fee paid for airfare to and from Anchorage and two-night accommodations, and the rest went toward leukemia research.

There were times, especially when jogging along what seemed to be endless miles of Army tank trails, when I felt like quitting. But where would I go? The Red Cross was always nearby to whisk weary or wounded people to the end for medical help. But sheesh, how could I embarrass myself like that? The only way out was through.

Even now, nearly twenty-five years later, I can still recall a small clearing near a bridge where water and fresh bread were being distributed. I’ve never tasted water so fresh nor bread so satisfying. Nor have I forgotten the sounds of cheering as we crossed the finish line in a high school parking lot six hours after my first step. 

This blog has gone on far too long. It’s your turn to share an instance of the only way out is through. I like success stories, but stories in which people give up are welcome, too.

Time To Say Goodbye

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The next day we were at sea all day, but no one was bored. That doesn’t happen on a Princess Cruise unless a person refuses to come out of his or her cabin. During the at sea days, there were movies, shows, demonstrations, and dance lessons. Some people hung out in the casino while others sat or walked on the Promenade Deck. Others opted to watch a movie on the top deck while sitting in a hot tub or huddled beneath a blanket in a deck chair. Some people shopped and others frequented the bar. Always, there was something to do, to enjoy. There was even a library!

On the morning of the last day of the cruise, we attended a demonstration by the sous chef and bakery chef. Quite entertaining. Towards the end of the performance, many of the staff walked on stage, and one of them, a Vietnamese man, regaled us with the most powerful rendition of “Time to Say Good-Bye” I’ve ever heard. Small in stature, his voice was “big” and touched everyone in attendance. At that moment we realized that the hour to say good-bye was quickly approaching. In less than twenty-four hours, all passengers would be disembarking.

I spent the afternoon walking on the Promenade deck as the ship eased its way to and through the Inside Passage into Canada. The ship’s naturalist was aboard and kept the passengers abreast of everything going on around us as we slowly cruised into Canadian territory. Whales, porpoises, tree-covered mountains, islands, and glaciers surrounded the ship with their natural beauty.

That night we dined with a three other couples whom we had not yet met. Although I can’t recall their names, we sincerely enjoyed their company. They, especially the women, were high-spirited and fun, and I even picked up an excellent recipe for cooking salmon on the grill. And lest I forget, a highlight of the evening was tasting Baked Alaska, a flaming treat that we had seen entering the dining room on trays carried by what seemed to be two dozen staff members.

Early the following morning, we put our bags outside of the cabin and made our to the Horizon Dining Room on the 14th deck. We had enjoyed breakfast there several mornings, and the variety and quality of the food were excellent. Usually a bagel and cream cheese gal, my cruise breakfasts were a little more substantial. Let’s just say I added a little something extra. Something like yogurt, fruit, wheat toast, banana nut bread, scrambled eggs, and bacon (only once, don’t judge). And then there was that morning when I opted for salmon and eggs…delicious.

That morning, the dining room was full, making it a challenge for the six of us to eat together, so we settled for “close proximity.” I met a new friend, a 79-year-old woman traveling to Canada for a family wedding. Chatting with her was a delightful experience, and I admired her willingness to follow The North Face advice to “Never Stop Exploring.”

Breakfast behind us, we reluctantly walked outside to the Lido Deck and asked a staff member to take our picture. It was time to say good-bye. Jeanita and Thomas were flying out of Vancouver with some other people that evening, and and Judy, Carl, Otis and I were spending the night in Vancouver.

Our plan was to take the ferry to Victoria for dinner, but those plans didn’t quite materialize. We took the ferry but went to Sydney, a picturesque coastal town a few miles from where the ferry docked. We walked, oohed and aahed, took pictures, and ate dinner at Subway (they’re everywhere!) before returning to the ferry.

The next morning we flew out of Canada towards the home of the brave and the land of the free. Seeing the words “Welcome to the U.S.A.” was emotional, and I pondered how people entering for the first time must feel.

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Last Stop–Ketchikan

Ketchikan, a word I’d heard quite often in the past several weeks. The very sound of it sounded mysterious and conjured up images of trappers, fishermen, and furriers. Named after the creek that runs through the city, it’s the southeasternmost city in Alaska. It’s also known as Salmon Capital of the World.

When we realized that this city would be the last one we’d visit before heading to Canada, we decided to sign up for an excursion. Jeanita and I chose one that allowed us to visit the Saxman Totem Village, and the others opted for a lumberjack competition.

The Saxman Village with its thirty-four totems, a carving shop, a clan house, and a gift shop was all we hoped for—and more. We listened to an interesting lecture by a native Tlingit who taught us about his culture and its clans, marriage customs, and way of life. To paraphrase, “It’s important to know about your people, where you come from and who you belong to, so that you’ll know who you are. You’ll have more of a sense of identify.”

Listening to him reminded me of one of the many reasons I had so easily embraced sociology in my younger years, and I walked out of the building wondering, “Who am I? Who are my people?” Oh sure, I know something of my genealogy, but I don’t think people can look at me and think, “Oh, she’s a native Tlingit from Alaska, probably a member of the Eagle Clan.”

Following the lecture, we looked at some souvenirs in another room and then followed a path through the woods to the clan house. Once inside, we observed a traditional dance performed by Tlingits, including two little children, who like their elders, were garbed in native dress. How rich their culture is, I thought. The smallest child was probably around three years old, and I couldn’t help but contrast her daily experiences with the tots I knew. Not that one’s lifestyle was superior to another, but rather that each had a culture, albeit quite different from each other.

After leaving the village and arriving back in Ketchikan, Jeanita and I met our husbands for lunch at Annabelle’s. It was an “interesting” experience. Leaving the restaurant, we took a left and headed to Creek Street, a wooden boardwalk in what was once a red light district. We even spotted a sign with a directional arrow pointing to “Married Man’s Trail.” Today the boardwalk is lined with restaurants, shops, and art galleries.

The menfolk soon tired of browsing and left for the ship. Jeanita and I found it absolutely necessary, however, to get online and do some work so we found Polar Treats, a combination ice cream/coffee shop, and settled in for about an hour. To be honest, we had been hankering to visit Sweet Mermaids, but as soon as we walked through the door, one of the employees let us know that they were closing at 4:00. It was 3:55. We took a quick look around at the creative artwork, sighed with regret that we hadn’t arrived earlier, and took off in search of Polar Treats.

Our work complete, we walked briskly back to the ship, passing the Tongass Trading Company on the way.

“Want to stop in for a quick look?” I asked Jeanita.

“It’s 5:20,” she said, grinning, and I knew what she was saying. Our curfew was 5:30, and we both knew it would be impossible for us to do justice to the huge store.

“Maybe next time,” I replied, knowing that we’d probably never visit this spot  again.

We were sad to be ending our last shore excursion but glad we had made it happen. Good-bye Annabelle’s. So long Creek Street. Farewell to the Tlingit people of Saxman Village.

Above Busy Juneau

By this point in our trip to Alaska, I realized that many of our co-travelers were going on expensive excursions and seeing things we were missing out on. We considered signing up for the Best of Juneau excursion that offered at least three fun experiences, but we were too stingy to spend an extra $400+ dollars. Besides, there were things I wanted to do in Juneau that didn’t involve salmon or whales.

The day in Juneau began pretty much like the Skagway morning had. We hustled down the gangway like kids let out of school. When we reached the main drag, there was jewelry store after jewelry store, all of them proclaiming to have the most beautiful and reasonably priced gems, gold, and silver. Since ours was the last tour for the season, their prices had been reduced.

Already having more jewelry than I could wear, I sauntered in and out of a few shops to browse for souvenirs for the girls on my list. Most businesses were giving away a free gift, and I ended up with two charms, a turquoise bear and an onyx whale’s tale. We bought Northern lights pendants and earrings for the daughters, daughters-in-law, and granddaughters on our list.

Except for Otis and me, the rest of our party went back to the ship. Determined to explore the city, I set out for a walking tour while my husband hung around the harbor checking out the sights and sounds. After telling him exactly where I’d be going and when I’d return, I took off up the hill to the left. A few blocks later, I came across the State Office Building and the Alaska State Museum, both of which were closed.

Disappointed but undeterred, I continued climbing until I spotted the Governor’s Mansion, a big white Southern Plantation-looking house. The juxtaposition of the colorful totem on the side of the white mansion was, well, interesting. Another noteworthy detail was how close the mansion was to the street. There were no barriers between Sarah Palin’s former residence and her neighbors. What was to prevent people like me, curious tourists, from coming onto the lawn for a photo op? The yard, incidentally, was average, kind of on the small side. The governor’s family could stand on the front porch and have a conversation with the neighbors!

Leaving the Governor’s neighborhood, I walked over a few blocks for a glimpse of several churches, including a Russian Orthodox Church, St. Nicholas, that I’d read about in a brochure. I then climbed what seemed like 150 steps of an outside staircase until I arrived at the Wickersham House, the home of a well-known judge who, among other things, was instrumental in the creation of Denali National Park.

On the way back down to the main thoroughfare, I saw an arresting site, a single chair placed on what appeared to be wooden planks. A closer look revealed a plaque entitled The Empty Chair, and a little research revealed its significance. In 1942, the United States forced many Japanese people into internment camps, one of whom was a young man named John Tanaka. Valedictorian of Juneau High School that year, he didn’t get to graduate with his class. A bronze replica of the folding chair like the one Tanaka was unable to occupy at graduation was later placed on this Juneau hill to represent this young man and 50+ others who were sent to interment camps.

Sobered by the history lesson, I turned and began the descent into the busy shopping area. From atop the hill, I could see water, ships in the harbor, and a bustling downtown. The hilltop seemed the perfect spot to honor those interned in camps so many decades prior.

Before leaving Juneau, we bought some hot chocolate from a kiosk and sat sipping and watching the tourists and townspeople walking briskly by us. Reluctant to leave, we finally rose and ambled into the Alaska Fudge Company for a tiny wedge of fudge. On the way out (just couldn’t see to tear ourselves away) we walked into a specialty shop, one that claimed to have unique Alaskan wares, and I left with a small Nativity scene with Baby Jesus and his parents in Eskimo garb.

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That night at dinner we compared notes of our day over yet another delicious meal, this one including raspberry sorbet served to cleanse our palates and an extra plate of pistachio cookies—just because.

Somewhere There’s a Town Called Skagway

Somewhere there’s a small picturesque town in Alaska called Skagway where six of us, all South Carolinians, spent a few memorable hours. We knew it was going to be a fun day as we stood waiting on the deck. As we studied the mysterious graffiti on a huge rock across the way and then glanced at the town villages to our left, we practically bristled with excitement and impatience.

Finally the disembarkment began, and beneath an overcast sky, we walked down the gangplank and strode toward the town. A small shuttle bus took several  passengers to the downtown area, but most of us chose to take the coastal trail so that we could get a better look at the ships in the harbor and some of the local scenery.

Six of us began the excursion together, but the cold and wind began to aggravate Judy’s oncoming cold, so she and her husband Carl left shortly after arrival. My friend Jeanita and I enjoyed browsing through the shops along Main Street, including a fur shop where she spied a coat like one she had purchased years ago. The town (at least the area where we were) was neat, clean, and pretty. Businesses were all well-maintained, and it was a pleasure to walk up and down the main drag and a few blocks off to the side where the homes were.

“Can you imagine living in a place like this?” I asked Jeanita.

“No. I mean, look at those mountains. How would it be to walk out your front door and see them on every side?”

“I know, I know. And then right around the corner, there’s the water,” I said, walking into yet another store.

“But oh my gosh, it’d be so cold,” Jeanita said. “It’s only September, and we wouldn’t be able to stand the wind without our vests.”

There were jewelry stores, souvenir shops, and even a museum. Attracted by its façade, we went into the museum/gift shop. Dark and a little musty, it was unique in size and interesting. It was probably the smallest museum I’ve ever visited, and yet it contained a treasure trove of artifacts and gold rush memorabilia. We browsed through the building and left with jade bracelets and matching earrings. We’ve never been able to pass up a deal, and the jade combo was no exception—buy the bracelet and get the earrings free.

We sauntered into a bakery and vowed to come back for muffins. We didn’t. Not really a regret. Just a fact. You can’t do everything and eat everything. Time and the human digestive system won’t allow it. We went into several jewelry and souvenir shops. Although the businesses were technically souvenir shops, they had a different feel about them, especially the one with native art and jewelry.

Our husbands had walked apart from us most of the day, laughing and talking about who knows what. Near lunchtime, the four of rendezvoused at the Red Onion Saloon. In its heyday, the business operated as one of the finest dance halls and saloons in the gold rush town of Skagway. It was also a bordello, and today visitors can tour the rooms upstairs for a small fee.

Diners from the various cruise ships filled the tables, and we four sat near the front, a location affording good views of the outside street action and of the restaurant goings-on. The servers all wore dresses with low-cut, form-fitting bodices. In keeping with the spirit of the bordello past, the girls had money stuffed in the front of their dresses. We enjoyed the upbeat ambience of the place and agreed that our chowder and chili dishes were quite tasty.

We talked to our server, and when Thomas, Jeanita’s husband, asked her what she was going to do when the ships left, she simply said, “Relax.” She then turned to us and said that actually she was somewhat of an artist and that she made Christmas ornaments of twigs. When she described the ornaments in detail, I recalled seeing them in a gift shop for the price of $44. Artistic or not, the tiny twig tree was too pricey for me.

Reluctant to leave a place with so much charm and beauty, we stopped by the souvenir shop on the way out. Purchases in hand, we rounded the curve leaving town and walked briskly back to the ship in the chilly, damp air.

All Aboard!

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My last post ended with the anticipation of the bus ride through the Whittier Tunnel, the only passageway between us and the Coral Princess. Like it or not, we had no choice but to go through it no matter how intimated we might feel. Sitting still as statues, the other passengers and I looked straight ahead throughout the entire two and one half miles. If anyone spoke at all, it was in whispered tones, but for the most part, we were quiet, our eyes straining for a glimpse of light at the end.

I almost laughed with relief when I finally saw the light.

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The bus emerged from the tunnel and took a curving road to the left. There she sat in the harbor, the Coral Princess. As the driver parked the bus, I looked to the mountains to my right and saw what appeared to be apartments. Later, the woman checked our passports told me that’s where most of the town’s residents resided. Most of the time, she said, that was about 200 people. Now, however, approximately 400 people lived there, many of whom would leave after the last tour of the season: ours.

The baggage handling was a snap and was efficiently taken care of by Princess employees. The passengers stood in line for about twenty minutes, and then we were out the door and walking up the gangplank. Once inside the ship, I noticed a man to our left taking pictures of all who came aboard, including us. We gave him tired smiles and then went in search of our room on the Baja Deck, Room 626.

Happy with our home for the next week, we went exploring and oohed and aahed every few minutes—er, seconds. There were several restaurants, a variety of stores, a casino, a theatre, a lounge, a bar, an outdoor movie screen on the top deck, hot tubs, a library, and plenty of other attractions. I knew right away that none of us would have occasion to say, “I’m bored.”

That evening, we had dinner in the Bayou Café, and our primary server was a delightful young woman from Macedonia. Pleasant and outgoing, her most frequent expression was an Italian one: “Mama Mia!” She and her two assistants made our first dining experience one to remember. Very attentive, they made certain everything was just right.

The menu was extensive, and although two of us ate salmon (after all, we were in Alaska), the others of our party sampled a variety of entrees. One of the men at our table enjoyed his shrimp cocktail so much that he ordered two. After all, he reasoned, we had paid for everything ahead of time. Not even the most disciplined among us could resist dessert. From tiramisu to shortbread and tarts to mousse, there was something delectable to suit even the pickiest of palates.

As we walked back to our cabins, we chatted about what the following day would bring. We knew we’d be at sea throughout the night, and much of our conversation revolved around the anticipation of that experience. About that time, we heard a loudspeaker reminding everyone to report to a “muster station” to learn what to do in case of an emergency.

The muster station experience brought reality home: You are traveling on a huge ship with hundreds of other people. Look around you! If something goes wrong, these are the people you’ll be sinking with!

On to Whittier

My last post about our Alaska cruise was about leaving Anchorage and heading for Whittier where we’d get on the Coral Princess. On the way, we stopped a a nature preserve and gazed at some magnificent animals.

Back to the trip.

We’d just left the nature preserve and were still oohing and aahing over the variety of animals we’d seen up close and personal. Moose, elk, reindeer, and grizzlies were walking around like they owned the place. The elk were such beautiful creatures, moving gracefully across the grassy expanse. And the reindeer and moose! How could they hold their heads so high with all that weight on the top? We saw a little porcupine too. I marveled at how the prickly spines grew right of his little body, just like hair. “All creatures great and small…..”

The weather was cold, yet perfect for the fall afternoon. We’d left Anchorage about 8:30 that morning and were scheduled to board the Princess Coral sometime that afternoon. None of us actually knew exactly where that was or when the “all aboard” would take place. We just knew it was soon, and it seemed to me that the whole bus was bristling with excitement and a touch of anxiety. Seven days on a ship? Were we ready?

The driver took us through some beautiful country, and I spied a couple of signs pointing toward the Portage Glacier. It would have been divine if we’d had time to visit the glacier that my daughter Carrie and some friends from South Carolina had visited nearly twenty years ago when we were in Anchorage for a Team-in-Training marathon. I recalled the quote, “Don’t be sad it’s over; just be glad it happened.” The memory of that cool morning (although it was June 20) would stay in my mind forever.

Suddenly the bus pulled off the road to the right so that we could get a good look at a mountain with a glacier. Many were content to sit tight in the bus, but Otis, Thomas, and I got off to get a better look. We simply could not resist walking through the open space between the evergreens. ‘Twas swell to feel the wind and stand as tall as humans could stand there in that majestic place. A glacier and a mountain and trees and a body of water!

Browning’s words, “God’s in His heaven. All’s right with the world” flashed through my mind as we sauntered down near the water. No matter where my life went after the trip, I’d always have this moment in nature with my sweet husband and one of our friends. Even they, tough nature guys, were affected by the magic.

We asked Thomas to snap our picture, and the image portrayed our feelings on the last stop before arriving at Whittier. Carpe diem!

We got back on the bus with our fellow passengers, and the driver informed us that we had to be at the tunnel by 1:30. The tunnel? What kind of tunnel was so special that you had to have an appointment? Here’s what kind: a 2.5 mile, one-way tunnel dynamited into being! Vehicles leaving Whittier began the trip through the tunnel at the top of each hour, and those going to Whittier went through on the half-hour. That’d be us.

It could have been my imagination, but it seemed to be that the chatter stopped, and for the most part, my traveling companions were all silent as they (we) considered what was ahead. We arrived at the tunnel, and I was surprised to see so many cars, trucks, and buses. Where did all those people come from? We took our place in the queue and listened to the driver prattle on as we waited our turn.

The half hour was upon us, and the bus inched forward.

From Talkeetna to Anchorage

I’m going to remember these moments for the rest of my life, I thought as I finished my last walk in McKinley National Park.  Around midmorning we left on the bus and headed for a little town called Talkeetna where we were scheduled to catch a train to Anchorage. The station was tiny, but it had a beautiful red, white, and blue flag hanging from the front of it. Colorful against the gray sky, it begged for attention, and I obliged by taking a picture of the stars and stripes.

The train ride was long, but nice…exciting too. Mile after mile after mile, the train sped through the wild, and we soaked in as much beauty as our human eyes would allow. Many travelers ate lunch, but most settled for snacks. According to fellow passengers, the food choices were fairly extensive, and the service was good.

The scenery was breathtaking. Trees, especially the tall, straight pines and yellow willows flew by on every side. There were rivers and gravel bars and hills—everything but people. Occasionally, we glimpsed some small structures, probably work-related buildings, but no houses. How do people travel about in this wild country? I wondered.

After a couple of hours, probably closer to three, the conductor announced that soon we’d go through Wasilla, the childhood home of Sarah Palin, and arrive in Anchorage shortly afterwards. Soon we slowed down to ease through an overcast and chilly Wasilla, and he pointed out Palin’s home on our left. The house was nice but unpretentious, and I wondered about her childhood and how the geography and landscape had affected her psyche.

Palin lives in Arizona now, a totally different environment. Now she sees desert sagebrush instead of taiga forest, sun instead of misty fog. She never has to worry about permafrost or grizzlies these days, and she can probably leave her coat and gloves behind even on the coldest of winter days. Without ever having met her, I know that as beautiful as Arizona is, there are days when SP misses her native state.

There were stores, restaurants, and homes along the way, and I realized that in Wasilla, the citizens had everything we have in Camden—everything necessary for survival, that is. I didn’t spy any oaks, dogwoods, or  palmettos, but there were schools, churches, and grocery stores evident all along the ride. When the Princess train pulled into the station, everything around us looked gray: the sky, the concrete, the busses—everything. Like good soldiers, we disembarked from the train and climbed aboard a bus that would transport us into our hotel in Anchorage, the Captain Cook.

After freshening up a tad, many travelers, including us, ate dinner in one of the hotel restaurants, Fletcher’s. The food was delicious, and our conversation was not only about our afternoon train experiences but also about the next day’s agenda. Tonight would be the last night we’d spend on land, and by that same hour the next day, we’d be on the ship waiting to set sail.

Our time in Anchorage was brief, and if my husband hadn’t been willing to walk to a small diner for breakfast the next morning, our only real contact with the largest of Alaska’s cities would have been too negligible to even count—kind of like having a short layover in Reno and announcing to friends that you had once visited that gambling mecca.

As it was, we sauntered down 5th Avenue for a view of the coastline and a short stroll along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. After walking back up the steep hill, we walked a few blocks until we found the perfect diner, one that served both locals and tourists alike. The service was good, the food was tasty, and the view of downtown Anchorage through the huge front windows was great.

Scuttling back up the street, we made it back to the Captain Cook just minutes before the bus arrived, the one that would take us out of Anchorage and towards the sea and our ship.

Welcome to Nenana

“Let’s go, let’s go.” Those were the words I heard the morning of the 6th, the same words I’d heard every morning of our Alaskan adventure. Here’s something you need to know should you decide to go on a Princess cruise, part land/part sea: while on land, there’ll be places to go and things to do and see every day. And while that’s a good thing, some people can find it a bit tiring. Fortunately, bus and train rides offer opportunity to doze.

Back to the morning of the 6th. It was the day we were heading to Denali, and the very word conjured up cultural connotations. I was used to towns like Kershaw, Camden, and Sumter, and although they too have histories, I was so accustomed to their sounds and origins of these Southern places that I didn’t find them odd or novel.

Before day’s end, we get a peek of Mt. Denali, spend a sliver of time in a tiny town called Nenana, watch a film at a wilderness access center, listen to a park ranger talk about life in the wild as we stood outside the Savage Cabin, and meet Carol Reid on Primrose Ridge. Late in the day, we’d pull into the small town of Denali for an overnighter.

On the evening of the 5th, Thomas said he wanted to visit an Alaskan village, someplace where people really lived, someplace where there was no McDonald’s—just people living off the grid in “real life.” As he talked, I thought, “Me too.”

I wanted to see women strolling down a narrow street, a child or two in two, with a beautiful backdrop of taiga forest on an incline behind them. I wanted to see old cars and NO tour buses. I wanted to see a collection of buildings that would stay seared in my memory forever, a place where people lived and dreamed and loved and ached with desire and wonder.

There were no towns along the road to Denali, at least none that I could see, just miles and miles of breathtakingly beautiful scenery—a landscape “as old as the hills” (literally) and most of it untouched and unseen by human eyes. This was territory for the moose, the caribou, and the grizzly. At moments, I’d find myself becoming inured to the loveliness, and in then in an instant, I’d catch sight of a certain stand of trees or rock formation that would force a “Look at that!” from me.

On the morning of the 6th, Thomas got his wish. At some point, the driver pulled off the highway and drove down a narrow road lined with small homes. I gawked and then gulped. So this is what it’s like to live in a small Alaskan village away from Wal-Mart and The Fresh Market. Was there a school here? Where was it?

We were in Nenana, the first Iditarod checkpoint in 2003 and 2015.

We lumbered down off the bus and split up in different directions to take pictures, visit the gift shop, purchase snacks, and stretch our legs. I was captivated by the bridges, the railroad tracks that led out of town (a sure sign that there was life down the tracks), the gorgeous orange and yellow trees, a cemetery high on a hill, and the overall feel of the place. While Nenana was but a stopping point on the way to Denali, it was a welcome one, and I savored our half hour there.

Little did I know that the day would get better and better as it progressed.

Have you ever been to Nenana? Has there ever been a spot that cast a spell on you?

Striking It Rich at Gold Dredge 8

I’m wearing my gold-filled pendant on its delicate silver chain today. Yes, you read correctly—gold-filled pendant. There are flecks, not nuggets, in the tiny round pendant, but still, the jewelry is special because of the memories it conjures up, memories of a cool, overcast afternoon in the 49th state.

We’d spent the morning on the Chena River, and lunch behind us, we clambered aboard the tour bus to head towards our next excursion. Before the afternoon ended, we’d have walked beneath the Alaska Pipeline, also referred to as TAPS (Trans Alaska Pipeline System), and panned for gold. The girls would be taking home some gold-filled treasures. When I say “girls,” I’m referring to pretty much every female on the excursion.

As soon as we disembarked and headed towards the Pipeline, we could see that the people already assembled were paying rapt attention to the speaker. Dressed in black from his hat to his boots, the presenter shared a number of facts with his listeners, including the tidbit that the Pipeline provides revenue to help operate schools and that Alaska citizens receive a check from its profits each year. Designed to move oil from Alaska’s north slope to Valdez, the 800-mile Pipeline is a marvel of construction.

Next we got on an open-sided train that was a replica of the Tanana Valley Railroad. While we waited for the train to get going, a musician entertained us by playing the guitar and playing “Ring of Fire.” Within a few moments, the train rolled down the tracks to Gold Dredge 8, a popular and historical attraction, where we learned how the dredge worked the gold fields. According to the literature, Gold Dredge 8 extracted millions of ounces of gold from the frozen Alaskan ground and today serves as a monument to the miners who built Fairbanks.

After a presentation on the history of Gold Dredge 8, we piled off the train and were handed small bags of what appeared to be dirt. Little did we know there would be actually smithereens of gold hidden in the dirt. Friendly employees clad in plaid shirts gave the gold diggers (us) a demonstration of exactly how to pan for gold by using the warm water in the troughs in front of us. After striking it rich, we deposited our tiny nuggets into a plastic receptacle and headed to the huge rustic building close by.

The building contained a number of gift shops and a jewelry kiosk (?) set up to measure our gold. Delighted to learn that we had enough specks to preserve in a pendant, most of the women walked over to one of the gift shops to check out our options. Choices included pendants and earrings of various sizes and designs. I chose a “plain Jane” version, but my traveling buddies got something a little more embellished.

While wandering in and out of the various shops, most people sipped on complimentary hot chocolate, coffee, or water as they munched on delicious freshly baked cookies. My personal favorite was chocolate oatmeal raisin.

Fortified by our snacks, we boarded the railway car and listened to a gentleman play the fiddle and sing “You Are My Sunshine.” Many of us joined in the singing, and I knew that I’d always recall that beautiful afternoon just “a singing” beside Gold Dredge 8. Seeing the staff lined up with smiles and goodbye waves added the perfect ending to the afternoon.

Back at the lodge, eight of us later met for salmon chowder, cheeseburgers, and meatloaf. To be honest, the food was mediocre to be so expensive. My chowder was thick, muddy, and lukewarm (even after it was reheated). My husband still talks about his $4.50 scoop of chocolate ice cream and is planning a trip to Cold Stone Creamery in Myrtle Beach ASAP.

Everyone hit the sack early that night, excited with the knowledge that we’d be heading to Denali the next morning.