Wet, cold, and worn out after dog sledding on the glacier, we arrive at the Kenai Riverside Lodge at around four. We’re all shown to our separate cabins, where our luggage has magically appeared. The cabins are well appointed, with rocking chair porches, cozy quilts on the beds, and shelving and hangers so we can get organized. The bathroom belongs to a long-legged spider who intends to spy on our private business for the two nights we’re here. The small desk in front of the heater is appreciated, as I get up early to write, a routine I never mess with.
Before we settle in, Elias, our guide, gives us a tour of the lodge. He walks, points, talks. There’s the place where we check in. This is the boathouse where we’ll meet for the raft trip tomorrow morning. Here’s a centrally located building that consists of a sitting area, a bar, and a dining hall. The bar attracts my interest and as soon as we’re released from the tour, that’s where I go to request a Malbec. Then I make my way to the large deck, conveniently located right in front of our cabin, that overlooks the broad, fast-running Kenai River. Some of our tour mates, not as interested in a glass of wine as I am, are already there. David shows up with a beer and, relaxing into the chairs that overlook the foaming water, we all begin the process of getting to know one another.
Purists can be snooty about packaged tours. And at times I’ve felt the same way. I would never, for instance, go on a pre-paid tour of self-explanatory sites like The Great Wall or Pompeii or Petra. But there are some places where the act of arranging your own transportation is so difficult and time-consuming that it overshadows the pleasure of being there. Alaska is that kind of place. During our explorations we’ll go to remote locations that can only be accessed by boats and helicopters, all arranged by our tour company. All that’s expected of us is to pay, sign, and show up. Nevertheless, the notion of traveling in close proximity to six other people for a long period of time causes anxiety. There’s the risk that someone in the group might be annoying; and I tend to be intolerant. Here are my early impressions:
Dawn and Ronnie, of our generation, are traveling with their son, Adam, and their daughter-in-law, Laura. They’re from Alabama. To my shame, I look for things to not like about people before I look for things to like. But to my delight, there’s nothing negative here. These are entertaining people, offering a plethora of interesting characteristics. A southern accent can be misleading. A drawn-out twang can give the impression of slow thought. And these canny folk, fully aware of the misperception, proudly embrace the drawl of their heritage. The two men are savvy business successes—Ronnie recently sold a large business that he built from the ground up, and Adam is a busy builder who owns his own company. The four family members are smart and deal with each other with kindness and humor. The two men are very much alike and sometimes seem to communicate without verbal exchange. And Dawn, the matriarch, is relaxed and open-minded. She’s got thoughts of her own, but is content to let things flow; non-controlling, which tells me she thinks highly enough of herself that she doesn’t have to be constantly proving that she’s in charge.
Adam is quiet and at first I think he’s reticent, perhaps grouchy. But then I hear his laugh, and though I’ve heard about an “infectious laugh” this is the first time I’ve ever actually come across one. It’s a quiet, almost sneaky, “heh, heh, heh,” that makes me think—well, no wonder that beautiful girl married him. I bet she laughs every minute of the day. Also, it turns out that he’s a wild man, a rule-breaker; during our brief stay at the Kenai River Lodge, he over stoked the sauna, almost catching it on fire, and snuck in to the forbidden staff area to use the dryers (heh, heh, heh). (All the places we stayed were tediously, yet justifiably, energy conscious.) If Adam doesn’t like an imperative, he simply ignores it. I envy his audacity.
Laura, with merry eyes and a head of brown curls, wins my heart when she says she loves to read. Some people don’t read, and I don’t understand this. Laura is an enthusiast, up on all the latest writing websites and current authors. Discovering that I’ve got a novel coming out in the UK in September, she pulls out her phone, calls up Amazon.co.uk, and searches for the title, Old Buildings in North Texas, where the blurb is offered and I’m described as an “astonishing new American voice.” Apparently it’s available for pre-order, and will be out on the fifteenth of September. I didn’t know about this. Shouldn’t I have known?
“I’m going to receive twenty copies from the publisher,” I tell her. “I think I should do something promotional with them, but I don’t know what.” I imagine the hardbacks lined up on my shelf. I guess I might give a few to friends or family members.
“You’re supposed to offer signed copies on your website,” she tells me. “Your fans will definitely want them.”
See why I like her?
The remaining two people are Dennis and Cheri, from Missouri. Cheri is the one I have the most in common with. Like me, she gets skittish when she doesn’t know the plan. She and I enjoy the same things—quilting and reading and working on our various projects. We’ve raised our kids and aren’t outgoing, though I think she’s even more introverted than I am—she doesn’t even play Mahjong! Most notable about her husband, Dennis, is that he’s courteous. Every time we must clamber in or out of the van, he’s standing with a hand out to support the ladies as we navigate the gigantic step. Retired now, he spent his career as a federal watchdog, investigating union corruption. Fascinating.
“Wow,” I say, leaning forward greedily. “I bet you’ve got some stories to tell.” I’m always on the lookout.
“Oh, I could tell you stories.”
But, though I indicate an interest, no tales are forthcoming. I sense that there’s bitterness there, as though he’s unhappy with the way the job came to an end. Or maybe he simply doesn’t like to talk about himself. Depths unplumbed; I hate it when there’s something I don’t know.
Time for dinner. Filet mignon, so tender it melts in my mouth. Delicious roasted potatoes (never met a potato I didn't like), grilled vegetables, salad, freshly baked bread. Dessert, rich and creamy. And this is how we all learn that we're going to gain weight in Alaska.