Sunday, October 20, 2013

From Alaska To Arizona [2013]

     MY DAD is pilot, he has his own tiny plane that he loves to fly. Every year we fly from our house in Alaska to our house in Arizona, and every year we fly back. This takes takes us a week and most of the time we are in Canada.
     If you are a new reader I’ll just lay it on the line here; I have some neuroses. These manifest in what I would not precisely categorise as obsessive behaviours, but I do prefer certain things to be consistent in my life. Certain patterns. Listening to the same record repeatedly, Espresso in the morning, a particular method of dress. I see old home movies of myself and I recognise these behaviours but for different things and I see young me lose his mind when these patterns are broken.
     So I have been trying to get away from that.

     Nothing is better for breaking a pattern than a few days in the Yukon. We were waylaid by weather in Whitehorse, the largest city in the Yukon but that isn’t saying much. The hotel was nice, but obviously built from pre–fab shipping containers, the logo of the hotel was everywhere but it was surprisingly similar to the logo of this blog {Skky Hotel}. I felt right at home.
“Nothing is better for breaking a pattern than a couple days in the Yukon”
     From experience I knew this hotel carried nothing but drip coffee, and Dad had determined we were stuck indefinitely, so the next day he suggested we experience the metropolis by foot, something he had not done for years. We took an expensive cab downtown, quizzing the driver about the best local hipster–hangouts, where the coffee is fresh and music obscure, and he cheerfully directed us to an A&W.

     We thanked him for his time.

     After a Tim Hortons drip coffee and donut we picked a promising direction. The promise this direction carried was one of espresso and pastries. The pastries were acceptable and the espresso poison, but on the way we encountered an old river boat, built over the course of a single year, and experienced the sort of river walk only available in autumnal Canada. Next to the path was a narrow railway, I naturally assumed it to be abandoned as most railways are but further along was a brand new platform. The track terminated in a sealed red building, there were windows but inside it was dark.
“The pastries were acceptable and the espresso poison”
     I was photographing a flyer on the door that displayed the train, when the door opened to reveal a woman who asked me what I was doing. I told her and she nodded and disappeared. A moment later she reappeared asking “Do you want to photograph the real [train]?” Of course I did.
     Inside the red building was a small office and a large room that smelled like old wood, containing two trains; one large and red {Decommissioned}, and one small and yellow. The bright colours and breezy design declared it not designed for the Yukon. The woman who worked there told the little train’s story: it was built in Portugal for the Brazilian market, as such it can only operate in the Yukon summer, but this is the one they bought cheap and is now an historical antique, so it is the one they have. It had a little electric engine it employed in the summer to take tourists on a tour of the path we had just walked, which I imagine to be just as beautiful in the summer, and from a tram it would be an experience. But we were not there in the summer, so we thanked her and left. We wandered around the town all day, then took the bus home. The bus system proved to be confused and inefficient, but it existed, so that was a mark for it.

     The next morning the bus defeated us. Overnight the plane had become covered in ice, but Dad divined that it would melt off by the afternoon or so, when we could leave, and declared that he wanted to go to a brewery in town, where he would buy a branded sweatshirt. Google maps was misinformed, and the little sign wasn’t very clear, so we spent much of the morning alternately freezing in a bus stop or worrying that we had missed the bus from the warm–but–far–away airport terminal.
     Eventually the bus arrived and dropped us off on the side of the road in the industrial district where we discovered Dad’s brewery was, in fact, closed. We were so cold, though, that we tried the door and discovered that the brewery shared its building with an engineering firm and unknown businesses upstairs. Being me, I went upstairs. Dad followed. There were two rooms, to the left {Above the brewery} an open door leading to an unoccupied room full of papers, folders labelled with the names of  companies and buildings and streets, plans, numbers and science. To the right a closed door with a glass window, behind which a couple people were having a meeting.
     Dad turned around and left, while I smiled my doofus smile and waved at the people. The most brightly-dressed one detached herself and opened the door “Are you with the brewery?” Dad asked from the stairway. She was, and let us into the store, while saying many, many times that she cannot sell us any liquor until they open. We agreed and carefully examined all of the branded clothing until it was apparent that the sweatshirt Dad was thinking of did not exist. He settled for an overpriced t-shirt and we set off for downtown on foot.

     My favourite way to experience any town, large or small, is on foot. You get a better feel of the place, you see more of it, and at the end of the day you sleep amazingly. Dad shares this outlook but even to wander around aimlessly, you need to pick a direction. So we picked that café with the poisoned coffee and ambled through the industrial quarter. It wasn’t that different from the rest of Whitehorse: badly–aging prefab buildings no more than two stories high, interspersed with deserted chain restaurants. The air had a bite and a threatening of snow, while the paved ground was covered in silt. Trucks varying in size from 4x4 to semi drove past on my right too fast and too often, the wind was too cold and I was wearing the wrong hat.

“Around the back of this bicycle shop was a sign declaring this service entrance a coffee roastery”

     Dad said something like “Hey did you see this?” and pointed out an A–Frame sign at my knee. I stopped and looked at it. It promised espresso, but was set up in front of a bicycle shop. Around the back of this bicycle shop was a sign declaring this service entrance a coffee roastery, “Can you go in there without ordering a—” Dad started to ask, then looked at my face and thought better of it, once inside I said “Double Espresso please.” and received a coffee that besides not being poison was good. After what felt to my addict mind like a month of deprivation it was ambrosia.“I didn’t know a place like this existed in Whitehorse” I said, gesturing my fingerless–gloved hand at the brightly coloured, eclectically–decorated hip happening coffee roastery displaying vinyl records from current Canadian bands, separated from the bicycle shop by a shoulder–height wall. “Yeah,” said the barista “We’ve been here for 15 years.” I wish that I had known the multiple other times I’ve been to Whitehorse that Midnight Sun Coffee Roasters existed. Well, I know now.
     After further freezing and bus–based confusion, we collected our things from the hotel and flew away.

    After Whitehorse we landed a couple places to refuel, flew the infamous “Trench” which is the straightest but most historically dangerous way to get through Canada, and saw some truly amazing aerial scenery. It is hard to present the world as it truly is, but I took a shot. We settled for the night in a town called Prince George, we had been laid over here once before but tonight it was just overnight. There was less in Prince George than in Whitehorse, nothing but a far–off train museum and a thrift store where I found Abbey Road on vinyl for a single Canadian dollar one time. After yet another surprisingly expensive cab ride we reached the freshly renovated Ramada Hotel. Which was completely booked. We watched the man at the desk call hotel after hotel until finally it was revealed every room in the entire city was full. The town was booked by not one, but three different conventions; Lumberjacks, lawyers, and a lobby full of farm–equipment auction attendees. We were about to give up and pay too much for a cab to a small, far–away Bed and Breakfast when the other person at the desk tendered our salvation. “One of our guests can’t make it until tomorrow night” she said. “We have one room.” Dad visibly relaxed. We left our bags in the last room in Prince George and went to dinner. 
“The town was booked”
     There is one restaurant in Prince George that we always try to get into, and always are turned away because they are wine bar first and I am never old enough. This time though the skinny white bouncer suggested we try the Greek restaurant down the street, so we went there. When I first stepped through the door a baby was crying, and it felt very inauspicious. This feeling continued when the salads arrived and I found out a Greek Salad is, in fact, just diced tomatoes. My least favourite vegetable to eat raw. 
     Last time we were in Prince George we sat in a different restaurant, across town, while across the empty restaurant an obscene, loud drunk and his girlfriend entertained the drunk’s polite friend. Back in the Greek restaurant three of their pattern sat at the table to my right. Inauspicious. I had never had Greek food before, and hummus was a sort of revelation. So was the main course, a platter Dad and I shared containing a couple different meats and the last serving of potatoes in the building, other things I have since forgotten, but what I remember vividly was this dish that was like lasagna but instead of noodles it had leaves of cabbage and was filled with spiced ground beef. I suspect food in Greece is less Meat–and–Potatoes and more Fish–and–Lamb, but it was better than it seemed it would be. The next morning we left early. 

    The northern forests are stunted by cold, and shaped only by water and stone. Flying south you see how a warmer climate positively affects the progress of the natural. Until finally a city arrives, and the trees turn from field of green broken by river or mountain to patchwork of loggers. It is surprising, initially.
“The Okanagan Valley in southern BC feels almost tropical.”
      We landed in the beautiful Okanagan Valley, home of fruit and wine. Coming from the frozen north of the Yukon, the Okanagan Valley in southern BC feels almost tropical. Especially when you’re wearing a long sleeved shirt and a woolen sweater. When last we were in this valley we landed in a town called Penticton, a town that felt to me like a place where the fancy lived. This time we alighted on a town called Kelowna, which gave the impression of being a place the fancy vacationed. The brand–new high–rise vacation apartments on the lake–that–is–not–a–river were all but empty, and walking through their carefully engineered to feel homey, totally deserted streets was more than a little creepy.
    Walking the suspiciously clean streets and many bike paths of Kelowna it felt as if yuppies wearing Salmon–Sweaters–as–Scarves were just out of my periphery, or possibly had just stepped out of town for a yacht party or something.  The weather was just cold enough to discourage all but the most determined wake–boarders and the coffee shop was almost didn’t have a line. In line for an exploratory espresso at the coffee shop a short walk from the hotel I stood behind a larger–than–me guy and in the middle of a conversation between him and a short girl directly behind me. Just as I was thinking to myself that maybe I should switch places with the girl so they could talk more efficiently the conversation all but ended and Dawn introduced herself.
     I thought to myself what an odd name Don is for a girl to have and shortly learned that while Kelowna is the playground of the Salmon–Sweater–Set in the summer, people still live there in the winter, where the neat old houses are, and that I had semi–randomly picked the best coffee shop in town. This was all good and helpful information. She was talkative and friendly in a productive way that a person who communicates best by typing slowly can’t help but appreciate, and when she asked I told her my little thing I had figured out about what traveling by small plane is like. More helpful to her, I think, was Dad’s pitch for the Alaska Marine Highway System “The Best and Cheapest Way to See The Most Beautiful Bit Of Alaska” Which she wrote down in a notebook.
     The Alaska Marine Highway System is basically a ferry that takes the same route up the inside passage as cruise ships, but slower and way cheaper and you can get on or off wherever you like. It seems like a good deal and is something I can never remember the name of, but Dad’s usually there and I can say “Hey Dad tell [this person] about the cool thing with the boats.” I had finished my coffee forever ago and Dad and I went to look at the cool old houses. On the way there we came across a gothic brick church that looked completely out–of–place. As I waited for the light to change I realised the Church was lying about being gothic, not only because it could not have been built more than one–hundred years ago, but also it looked wrong. It’s a weird feeling being lied to by a building.
     We looked at the former homes of dead town socialites until the town stopped, then crossed the street and did the same thing but on the way back towards where we started. Rich people in the past had neat houses, but none of them were more than two stories. There are no pictures of them here because even though most of the really cool ones were historical landmarks it felt weird taking pictures of someone’s house.
     Now that we had crossed the street we were right next to the church, and I could read the signs on it. It proclaimed itself to be some kind of accepting hippie church, which made less sense than the one white wall with exposed beams. Right next to that sign was an historical marker, that finally made the building make sense. It was a Gothic and Tudor revival built in the 20’s by presbyterians. Of Course. 
     That night we had dinner in a restaurant not quite as full of stereotypical Memphis things as the real memphis, and the next morning Dad and I went to a breakfast place Dawn had recommended, figured out how to get into america, then flew away.

     America is a strange country, because it’s green and forests and then suddenly desert. We crossed the entire country in only two days, stopping overnight in a tiny desert community filled with gambling houses and not–great food. We flew over the Grand Canyon. We had never done this before, I had always wanted to but Dad was always afraid the government would get us, because it’s a restricted area. Well, on this occasion the government was shut down. 
    And if you fly above a certain altitude through a certain stretch nobody cares. So we just did that. 
We flew over the Grand Canyon.
     I have been to the Grand Canyon on foot, we took a train to see it in person and that is an experience I can recommend to anyone. But to see it from the little outlook point they’ve set up, it doesn’t seem quite real. The nature of air is such that farther away objects are the more blue they become. Air is blue and the more air is between you and something, the more blue that thing is. The far edge of the Grand Canyon is really far from the where they let you stand and it sort of looks like a very clever painting about fifteen metres in front of you. But flying over it is different, because perspective catches up and you can see it really is a three–dimensional object. Unfortunately because you’re so high up you cannot get a good sense of scale, and it seems a lot smaller than it is.

     Everywhere I go I am struck by how strange and amazing the world is. It is bigger than you think, and cooler than I could have imagined. Canyons built by water over millions of years, coffee shops built in back of bicycle shops, hidden pockets of everyday wonder that exist even when you’re not looking at them, these things are my favourites. Travel is one of my favourite things, because it forces me out of my own head into the crazy things around me, which are so easy to ignore when one’s caught up with the self. But the unending beauty of the world can be overwhelming, and it is a treasure to be able to sit here and drink coffee and type words into the world. To collect and shape my experience into a firm narrative, trying to siphon a planet out through my fingertips. 

Everything is wonderful.


  1. That was amazing. I love the beginning and the ending especially. It's really cool that you're forcing yourself to grow and trying things outside of your usual patterns. That's something I've only realized the value in recently. So you're way ahead of me.

    P.S. I'm left wondering what Dawn looked like!

  2. Oh and "science" ... Hahahhaha that made me laugh.

  3. Correction to my first comment: and try*

  4. Bravo! Jake, you are a real talented fellow. My favorite part was when I finally got to a picture of that good looking mug of yours! I enjoyed all the words, too, of course ;0) Love you - A.N.

  5. Hi Jake, I work with your Dad, he is always trying to keep me in line. Obviously you need no such guidance. Thanks for sharing your trip and for the great photos. Any advice on how to set up a blog for travel photos?

  6. Thanks! I don’t know how to set up a travel blog, maybe just start? I wouldn’t limit it to just travel either, maybe have those be your headline articles but the only way to get even close to good at something is to start and then do it a lot; and unless you travel a lot it’s unlikely you’ll get the hours in. Write posts about…your kids? Your pets? I’m taking guesses here because I don’t know what you have. Limits and goals are very useful, though, and themes in your content help people find you.

    As for format, blogger is easy, free, and from google, and you can easily change the default templates, which are themselves actually pretty nice to begin with.

    Mostly start while you’re not paying too close attention to yourself, stick with it, and try and make your art the best version of itself that you can.


  7. Pfft, my face. I’m glad you liked the words. They were my second favourite bit.

  8. Those are some amazing photos! Also, it was quite entertaining to read.


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And have a nice rest–of–your–day you guys.