The summer I worked in Alaska is one I will never forget. But I had to get there first.
I had just graduated from the University of Memphis and couldn't decide what to do next. I had a degree in Journalism (and would later pursue more classes and Meteorology), but after years of working towards a scholastic goal, I suddenly found myself with time, options and a crossroad.
Like many young people, I longed for travel and adventure. With a little (pre-internet) research, I got hired by a seafood company in Alaska. They would float me to the worksite on a giant "processing ship", but I had to first get to Seattle on my own. So I bought a one-way Greyhound bust-ticket from Memphis. That bus ride was the longest 3-days of my entire life.
It was a blazing hot Memphis summer, so I got on the bus wearing shorts and a t-shirt. The driver threw my Army surplus duffle bag with my meager belongings under the bus and I climbed on....only to discover the A/C was broken (it was cranked low and wouldn't stop). It was about 48 degrees on there. The bus was completely packed, with only one open seat: next to a very, very large woman who was asleep. So climbed over her, crammed myself in, and snuggled under her arms for warmth. She was already halfway into my seat so it worked out nicely. Until she woke up. (AWK-ward.)
We headed due north to Chicago, and then started west for the coast. The bus bathroom overflowed around central Montana (I'm still removing the last molecules of that experience from my nasal cavity). In Idaho, we pulled into a deserted mountain town to stretch our legs and eat. Several of my bus-mates (who had money) refused to spend any money and went directly to the restaurant dumpsters. I watched slack-jawed as they jumped in and started eating. Hours later, somewhere in Idaho, I was told "If I didn't turn down my Walkman, I will stab you." I immediately turned it off. At the next stop, I tried to call "America's Most Wanted" to tell them I had found everyone.
Upon arrival in Seattle, I slung my bag over my back and started walking. I didn't have to find the company bus until the next day, so as a naive young man just out of college, I just started walking. For future references, no matter what city you're in, they apparently don't usually put the main bus depots in the best parts of the city.
I didn't have a plan. I didn't know the city. I didn't have any friends there. And I realized I didn't have a place to stay. I was truly winging it....but after three (hundred?) days on a bus, no bath in that time, and covered in some unknown "Greyhound" body rash, I had to find a place to clean up and sleep. So I walked.
I finally found a motel. That's actually being way too kind. I finally found a place with walls and indoor plumbing. They took what little money I had and I went in for what would become a terrible day. I was already homesick. Broke. Didn't know anything about where I was. In a bad part of town. And about to get on an ocean-bound giant seafood processing boat for who knew how long.
In hindsight, it was a pivotal moment for me.
I had started this journey as an idealist. This was a time when most in the U.S. still believed in the magic of the journey...hitting the open road....seeing the world with just the clothes on your back. I was a romantic...wanted to see it, feel it. Looking back, I began with the mindset of someone with no real life experience. I was uninitiated. I was outside of my known, and found myself jarringly in the unknown. When that occurs, it's a gut-check moment.
I have compassion for those who at that moment choose the safety of "the known". Those who take a breath and decided they're not quite ready for "the unknown". I so much wanted to make a collect call...to convince someone I knew to loan me money....to find another bus full of crazy people to take me back home. If fact, I can clearly remember wrestling with that all day and night as I sat in that dilapidated Seattle motel by the bus station. Going back would have been so very easy.
But I made a choice that moved me forward.
I slept on that thin, lumpy mattress. I watched one or two of the static TV stations. I listened to the foreign and intimidating sounds through the thin walls and door. I washed up in the small, dirty bathroom. And then I went out, found a cab, and spent the rest of my savings on a cab ride to the company pickup point. I carried my duffle into a parking lot, deserted except for a growing throng of grizzled people just like myself. And I waited for the Trident Seafood's bus to take us north to Bellingham, Washington and the boat.
Working in Alaska was an amazing experience. But that's another story.
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