MAY: THE BEGINNING
Following three months in that foreign land, it wasn’t the mountains or the wildlife that intrigued me most about spending a summer in Alaska, it was the potential for conversation. Just two weeks prior, from the courtyard at Dong-Myung Middle school in Daejeon, South Korea, I was offered the server position at the Grand Denali Lodge, and after a brief visit home, I found myself rereading “Into the Wild” as the plane approached the Prince Edward’s Sound. I put the book away and began my first of many random summer conversations.
The woman next to me turned out to be a photographer, and Native of Anchorage. She gave me some tips on the area and showed me her work. As the wheels bounced onto the wet runway, we exchanged follows on Instagram. A stark contrast from Korea, before even exiting the plane, I’d made a friend.
It was still light outside, but late, as I got to the hostel. It was empty, so I went to bed. The next morning, while waiting for the shuttle, another opportunity for conversation arose. I was sitting in the common area, doing data entry if I remember correctly. That’s when Austin, from Georgetown, a guy my age, approached me to inquire about the wifi. We got to talking.
Austin had just wrapped up a winter at a backcountry ski lodge. He said he worked housekeeping, but the job didn’t matter, because he’d only remember the legendary skiing. We didn’t talk long before I had to go.
Standing out in front of the hostel, I chatted with a group of girls with bags. Denimira was going to the Grande Denali too. Once on the shuttle, I sat next to a girl from New Zealand. She’d been traveling the states for three months, and she’d come to Alaska to renew her funds.
The ride was lengthy. Five bouncy hours through the desolate tundra. But, sharing stories with another native speaker, made it go by quick.
At “Mckinley Village” my Kiwi friend exited along with a large group. Only a few people were left, as we drove the last fifteen minutes. We crossed a half-frozen river, then took a right, up a windy road. The cranky old bus driver announced the stop, then left three of us in the dusty vacant lot.
Up the steep dirt hill, I wrestled my overweight suitcase toward the first set of wooden stairs. Inside the housing office, the managers chatted with a returning employee. It struck me to see how close they were, and I didn’t want to interrupt. It felt like I was barging in on a family. Eventually, I got my key, and carried the bag up two more flights of shaky stairs.
Across the wooden planks of the lofted walkway, which connected the cabin like housing units, I struggled, checking numbers, until I found E4, the last bottom unit on the end. I turned the key and opened the forest green door. Unlike the cozy pine exterior, the room was a small square with two twin beds, one on each side, a small shelf between them, a sink and mirror across the carpeted floor, and four plain walls, all white.
My first impression was that it looked a bit like a prison cell, but then I opened the window, and the afternoon light blasted in. Outside that window, the vegetation was still mainly bare, but the pines were green, and the tops of the mountains were all white.
The food and beverage Manager, who went by “AB”, the one who’d hired me, messaged to meet at the Employee Dining Room (better known as EDR). At 4:20, I took the first of many shuttle rides from the lower property, up to “The Grande” to eat.
Exceptionally jolly, and inviting to say the least, Andrea helped break the ice, as she showed me around the main lodge, and the restaurant where I’d be working. Rustic, with a plethora of windows that offered magnificent 360-degree views, complete with a large stuffed Grizzly in the middle. My first impression of the Alpenglow was “Wow!”. Even my “office” at the learners’ hill in Keystone didn’t challenge that view.
Down in the EDR , Andrea introduced me to a few returning employees who occupied the other seats at one of the five tables, and said she’d see me tomorrow morning for my first shift. I remember thinking the food wasn’t so bad. They had a salad bar. But, I struggled to get into the conversation. It was a long day. I kept up my hopes.
The next morning I woke up around 6, because of the time difference, and because I was excited. My first day of the new job was supposed to be about setting up the restaurant, but my mission was to meet people. In the lounge area, at an empty table, I set down my coat, and surveyed the room. Everyone else seemed to know each other already. It turned out they’d arrived a few days before. I introduced myself with a few handshakes, and then that girl with the curly hair walked in. She sat at my table. I saw it as an in. “Are you a PM server as well?” I asked her. “No, AM hostess.” She said with a subtle grin.
I sensed an accent, but I couldn’t place it. “Where are you from?” I followed. She said, “I’m Dominican.”
As the only AM crew members, amongst a bunch of rather pretentious PM’s, Yanara and I immediately became friends. Throughout that first shift of set-up, we found ways to work together. And for the next few weeks every trip to work, EDR, or town was spent with her. No, she wasn’t a native English speaker, but her English was excellent, and her kindness and ability to listen made our conversations exceptional.
Throughout that first month of serving, when things were stressful, and I was still figuring it out. Through those days where I missed Flora even more. And, as the newness and excitement of the place began to turn. Yanara was there to comfort and listen. And in June, when I found myself in the blue’s she helped me get through. Without Yanara’s support, I very likely would have ended my summer in Alaska before it even began.
Although I ended up inviting a friend to live with me, in Keystone, I got lucky by somehow receiving my own room. In Alaska, it appeared that my luck had continued. But then, just as I’d begun drifting off for a nap after my second brutally early morning shift, Blue, my new roommate, threw open the door. With designer sneakers, with rein stones that sparkled in the morning sun, three massive camo bags, and a disgusted look on his face, Blue was unlike anyone I’d ever met before. And although he took up far more than half the space with his suits and sneakers, and he constantly played the same shitty trap music, sharing a room with him was very interesting.
Blue’s side of the room was constantly cluttered, but like me, he appreciated sanitation, which reflected in the way he kept the sink and bathroom areas clean. An exchange student from China, currently studying Hospitality Management, at UNLV, this obviously wasn’t Blue’s first trip away from home, but Alaska represented a far different challenge than Vegas. A city guy, in every sense of the word, one of the first things he ever asked me was “you think they have Uber eats?”
Unlike most others, who were in Alaska to make money for the season, Blue had several other, far more lucrative streams of revenue, which included playing Poker and selling exotic cars, which meant that he was there strictly to complete a mandatory internship. He worked as bell staff, which provided me with interesting insight into the position. Days of moving luggage, and chillin’ with the other guys. And nights of getting drunk off one beer, and more shitty trap music.
From Blue, I became inspired to play poker, I even discovered a few interesting songs, I obtained endless hilarious quotes, and I got a new perspective on Chinese culture. The dude is brilliant, and every decision he makes is strategic. Blue and I spent a lot of time together during those first few weeks, but as May became June, work picked up, and he was routinely working 60 plus hours per week, and all I wanted to do was sleep.
JUNE: THE SLUMP
“It started as a two top. And then two four tops showed up. When I got back with table 101’s drinks, three more four tops had joined. “Same old song” that …same old song… looped in the background and seemed to increase in volume as the stress began to make my ears ring. “Can I get a cappuccino with skim milk” “Oh, I forget to say I wanted honey” “Can I change my eggs to Over easy?” The requests where coming in faster than I could listen. I wanted kick open that door and sprint.” June 19th, 2018
The luster of the place had subsided, and business had picked up. Yanara and I were still friends, and I had Blue as my roommate, but outside of those two, my life was primarily comprised with stress and routine.
On the 21st I wrote “Perhaps it’s because of my erratic sleep schedule, or my diet of bagged liquid eggs, and iceberg lettuce, or maybe because of the ridiculous amount of walking I do, but lately, I’ve just felt completely depleted.”
I’d written several blogs about how great things were going, but I was lying to myself. And just six weeks into my season in Denali, I was running out of positivity. On a cold rainy day, which would have qualified as winter in the lower 48, I sat in my manager’s office, to discuss options before I made a break.
After a bit of success at the very beginning, I felt like I wasn’t meeting anyone. To say that I was frustrated would be an understatement. So, in a last-minute attempt to salvage the season, and create a social life, I pitched the idea of hanging out to Felipe.
Like my roommate Blue, Felipe was also from the Hospitality Management program at UNLV. But they’d never met each other, and aside from their love of cities, they were completely different. My first impression of Felipe was bad, to say the least. He showed up sometime in early June, on a busy day, and immediately began pestering me. While I was trying to figure things out for myself, he was following me around asking questions. He ended that first shift by forgetting an order, which led to an irate table.
Then, over the course of the next couple days, he was late, three times, by several hours. The cooks hated him because he’d constantly fuck up orders, and the servers couldn’t stand him, because he’d consistently show up after set-up, and walk out with the same amount of tips, about which he’d complain. But, despite a very rough beginning to his time in Denali, Felipe remained extremely friendly, and I was feeling isolated that day.
“I’m supposed to meet up with Felipe later” I mentioned to one of the other servers, an older guy, named Kenny. “Good luck with that” I remember him saying. Little did I know, that I was about to make an amazing friend. And it was from that first afternoon at “the spot”, that my summer began to turn around.
As I got to know Felipe, I realized that I’d been entirely unfair in judging him, and I got to see his perspective. He’d been denied the internship and applied for a job as a hail mary attempt to get away from Las Vegas, and to experience something different. He’d never served before, and on that stressful first day, he was thrown onto the floor without training. He was late all the time well… because he liked to socialize, which meant staying out late. Unlike me, Felipe didn’t plan a thing. It seemed like he just woke up when he felt like it, and began letting “it” happen, completely unaware of what “it” might be.
His energy and positivity were exactly what I needed. As we celebrated the beginning of summer under the midnight sun, a friendship was born. And like Felipe, I began waking up and letting things unfold.
The month of May was cold, and June was wet and dreary. But, as solstice officially welcomed summer, and the calendar turned again, I saw warmth in July. The days were long, and because we spent the majority of our shifts laughing and fucking around, the shifts felt short. On Tuesday evenings we played softball, and every other afternoon was a mystery.
I rarely napped, we’d go straight to the spot instead, and then let the day unfold. Through Felipe, I met Zahara, a college girl from Anchorage, who’d been adopted as a kid from Ethiopia. She had a car, which meant I could finally escape that canyon. We went to Fairbanks just to watch a movie, began taking regular trips to Healy (the closest town), and I introduced them to hiking out at Savage River.
We watched movies in the community room, ate meals in big groups, played golf a couple times, rented biked, sampled beers at the brewery, and mainly just chilled.
But unlike chillin’ in the Lower 48, chillin’ in Alaska was often done outside, at the spot, or the billboard, or somewhere else with a view. Without cell service, or television, it was this lack of distractions, and the occasional addition of quality cannabis, that made for entertaining conversation.
Felipe introduced me to Piero, another great dude. and by the time my mom came to visit at the end of the month, I felt like I was part of a community, but then, it got hot.
For a year, I’d aimed to sit down once a week and recap the events, but things were hazy in the summer sun, and I just couldn’t keep up with the blog. Also, when I looked back on things I’d written, I sensed a consistent tone. I was proud of my writing, and it still seemed relevant, but this life I was living was different. It was brighter in that Alaskan sun, and I needed a new approach. It was on one of those trips to the store, with Zahara, that I purchased the notebook. And thus, began the daily journal.
In her ’01 Subaru Outback, LL Bean edition, we sat, at the cemetery, sharing stories. “So, tell me about your life” I said. “Well, I was born in Ethiopia, and I was adopted when I was seven. “Where did you live before then? I asked. “In an orphanage.” She said. We talked for an hour, and then continued our conversation over blueberry pie at 49th.
Today I woke up at 3:30 am for work. It was a slow day, one of the slowest of the season. I made 90 in tips and left at 11am. I came home, took a two-hour nap, and then did laundry. I read only a few pages of “Living with the monks” before Zahara spontaneously joined me on the porch. We went to an Employee Dining Room dinner together, where we joined a full table of friends.
It’s 9:39 pm now as I write this in the notebook, I just acquired at the tail end of our trip to Healy. Tomorrow’s another day of research.