Wednesday, December 30, 2015


Reading Time: ~ 10 -12 minutes

(This is part of a series on a theme: Context-Contrast)

I’ve been to Alaska only once. The crispness in the air and the clarity in nature hit me like a transparent wave when I went to put my hand in the cool water of the Nenana River. The polished pebbles on the river bank lay like untouched jewels. We were driving from a glacier park south of Anchorage to Denali.

This was in August 96. Something small happened in the trip, so casual that it was unremarkable at the time but strikes as different, as the years move.


It was a long drive. I was hoping to spot a grizzly bear but alas there were none.  We were searching for the turn into a bed&breakfast I had booked.  Somewhere around there, there was a bridge. Workmen were on it, maybe two or three. They had measuring instruments. We slowed a bit, one man in a helmet turned to look from his yellow tripod. We drove on and reached the rental. My heart sank, the house didn't look inspiring from the outside. 

Per instructions, we found the key and went in. It was comfortable inside. You have the house to yourself for the night. We stay in the small house down the hill, I’ll see you in the morning, she had said. Our room was very nice; the sitting area was also nice. There was a large, elevated sun-room to the side, looking down on the conical tree tops. We ate leftovers we brought with us, it was still light outside at eight. Now what? There was a lull.

We sat in the sun-room and I remembered the bottle the stewardess had pushed inside our bag with a big smile. Oh come on, have something else other than boring juice, she had said and poured wine into my glass. We had flown business class, a perk from the airline job that S (my husband), was in. She insisted and give us an extra bottle.

We found a corkscrew and two glasses in the kitchen. S’s idea of drinking was to take a couple of sips and happily refill my glass. Pretty soon after a glass or two, I was singing grizzly bear songs out to the bears in the woods outside. I had made these up during the drive. Sunset came at ten.


Breakfast was early. Awkward. The hostess and her husband were in the kitchen. The couple was new to hosting (parts of the house were still being finished- like the outside). They both were in white sweats, comfortable and relaxed. She was fixing something vegetarian per our agreement. Her husband was at a desk facing away from the table, on a computer.  We talked about the cold, about groceries, about keeping the car engine plugged in at night in winter. We drive to Fairbanks for our groceries and get enough at a time. But there was the kind of lingering awkwardness where no one wants to say anything wrong. Then something came up about computers and software. The husband broke into a smile and had much to say. He came to the table and ate with us. He was learning and starting a new business, from what I remember. The hostess pondered about a moose. The moose had wandered nearby, near the houses.  Along with some neighbors they had killed it (they had a permit to kill some). They were waiting to collect it and process for meat, share and store for winter. It is getting warm, she worried, looking outside. The meat might spoil.

We drove around and chose a path for a hike. I carefully read the instructions at the path entry point. “What to do if you come across a grizzly bear”. There was a note saying there were a number of grizzlies with babies and one had attacked some hikers recently. Do not hike alone, it cautioned. Well, we were two. We set off. The path grew narrow; the view was constrained by growth on both sides and had turns. There was no one else.

I grew tense. I don’t think I want to do this, I said, finally. Expecting a grizzly to attack, surely one would, and being on the alert was hard work. I took a U and reluctantly, S followed.


We drove to a bus tour place by which you can go to the interiors and watch. But they were all booked. A tourist retirement community had taken all the buses for the day. We watched the old folks depart with bonhomie while we ate quietly lunch at a small pizza shop. It was run by a man and a woman; I was delighted at how quickly they turned out our pizza. 
S walked into the meadow and looked around. People on foot weren’t allowed after that point because of fragile flora. How to see Denali? Now what?

In the lull we got an idea and convinced each other about the excellence of it. We have to celebrate, was the reasoning (after 4 years of being long-distance after marriage we had just started living together).

Soon - wrrrr - we were in a helicopter. The tour started off quite ordinary. Deep in the park, the pilot started doing tricks. He would go up and suddenly swoop down the side of a snowy mountain. It was exhilarating. It was the first time we took a helicopter ride. Later; on other rides, I realized this technique as used by other pilots. It was scary every time.
The pilot was lively in mood and reticent in speech. It was a 2-seater, we were the only passengers. He showed us around and answered questions. The blue in glaciers and mountain goats clinging to sheer cliffs who looked up at us- what? why? We did not see any bears. He showed us Mt. McKinley (now Mt. Denali) at a distance. I come here in the summers, in winters I pilot in other parks. How nice, I thought.


Post dinner it was still light again. We realized we had company- some other guests were in the other room. Don’t know who arrived first but soon we were all in the sitting area. We were on one sofa and they were on the other one, open for conversation. We are here examining the bridges, one of the men said. We travel through the state, we work as engineers. 

Oh, were you on the bridge last evening? I think we saw you.
They were. We stayed in another place last night but changed here for tonight. What a coincidence!

Then it was awkward. The kind of awkwardness where no one wants to say anything to disturb the goodwill.

One man was a little nervous in the beginning, the other man wasn’t, he was much at ease. It turned out he had the most, quiet initiative. They were both older than us, I can’t say how old. When you’re young, you don’t seem to notice age. They were older, was all I noticed. Now, I'd place them maybe in their late-thirties. 

Their homes were in Juneau. We talked about their jobs, about us, about India. We talked about Northern lights. The man at ease said- Sometimes in summer we sit in the porch in the evenings and watch the northern lights- they fill the sky, he said easily, slightly spreading his palms outward to show the expanse.


We saw the northern lights from the plane window on the flight back. They were spectacular. It’s something, I thought, when your way of life has the northern lights as a casual display on a casual summer porch.

It seems to me, we assiduously seek and build a network of context on context with experiences. And then, unexpectedly, sometimes we see, feel or hear something that takes us out of contexts. It stays in contrast, within and without context, like a lone water drop glistening on a leaf. 
Northern lights shining on a porch somewhere in Juneau, was such a drop.