Strangers In A Strange Land

by | Sep 2, 2007

I just finished reading John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley In Search of America, which is appropriate since our trip to Alaska was a journey towards self and our selves are thoroughly American. Yet, we’d like to think we are somehow separate from the mindless hordes that consitute “American” with a capital A.

Emerging from the Savage River Loop in Denali National Park on Tuesday, a middle-aged woman and man were standing at the trailhead talking. Upon our approach the woman asked, “Are you Americans?”

“Yes,” we replied.

“Oh, thank god,” she snapped. “This place is crawling with foreigners.”

Appalled once more by the attitudes of our fellow Americans, we didn’t hesitate to walk on and find a nice German couple observing a caribou through binoculars, which they kindly offered to share—the very thing Mrs. America refused to do. Allow me to add that Denali is a park with six million acres and only one lightly travelled road.

In Steinbeck’s travel chronicle he doesn’t find fault with the characters he encounters so readily. I believe he was a man of great compassion. In my narrative the faults compound and compete for supremacy.

After meeting the Germans, we boarded a loaded bus back to the Wilderness Access Center. Before we could get underway we had to contend with camera-slinging tourists fighting for window space along the right side, where the caribou we had been casually observing was wisely escaping up the embankment. A few miles down the road things really heated up when a bull moose was spotted. One over-zealous white shoed cameraman had the gall to bark orders at the moose. “Come on. To the right. That’s good. Head up. That’s it.” When he was satisfied that the moose was safely trapped inside his digital tool, he said to no one in particular, “I’m glad that moose showed up. I was gonna ask for my money back.”

Alaska is a stunning place. We expected that. What was unexpected was how the beauty of the place would provide such stark contrast for observing those who visit it. A lot has been said about Americans and our essential character. More will be said. But one thing we know for sure, “Americans” (in the pejorative sense) are an ugly people living in a beautiful land.

Of course, we can’t in good conscience find fault with others without also seeing it ourselves. For no one in the country is totally immune from the sins or arrogance, ignorance and detachment from nature. It would also be half-baked not to mention the good people encountered on this trip, for there were many. My hope is this kind of raw exposure to the land and the beasts who are supported by it, including humankind, fuels our will to be better, kinder, smarter people. America certainly is “the beautiful.” Let’s learn from the land and be beautiful too.