Alison Berkley: The Princess’s Palate
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
I’m sitting in the back of a tiny plane, flying over the Sheridan glacier near Cordova, Alaska, and I can’t figure out how to make the microphone thing work. I’m crammed into this little jump seat I was elected to occupy because I’m the smallest one in the group. I kind of feel like the family dog, stuffed in the way back of this tiny plane that is no bigger than a compact car.
The seats are tattered and worn from use and there is a bottle of Pledge and a roll of paper towels beneath my feet. I’d love to ask the pilot what they are doing there (Did someone say flammable?) but no one can hear me so I just sit there and pant and drool and try to put my paws up on the window to get a better view.
“See the moose with its baby down there by the river?” the pilot says.
“Oh, that’s just wonderful,” says Rachel, one of the other journalists on the trip. Rachel is a birder from upstate New York and her husband is a professor at Cornell. She’s written a book about a falconer in Wyoming and her portfolio boasts a lot of big, heady magazines like Audubon and The Smithsonian. She takes notes on a little notepad and asks a lot of important questions about stuff I know nothing about.
“There’s the ski area out there to the left,” the pilot says. I’m excited because skiing is one thing I do know about, so I go, “Where! Where?” but I can’t hear myself talk, not only because my microphone isn’t on, but because these giant headphones are plugging my ears. I have the urge to start pressing my wet nose against the window but I grab my camera and start taking photos instead.
“The chairlift is so small! It looks like a cartoon from up here,” Jen says, but I still can’t see what they’re talking about.
Dan is in the front seat. He’s from Colorado and he writes for a lot of newspapers and shoots his own photos, too. He’s not talking either, but it’s not because he doesn’t know how to operate his mic, but because he doesn’t talk much in general.
The truth is I am feeling anxious in this tiny plane as we seem to hang there in the sky, dangling precariously between the mountains and the clouds, the light winds batting us around like a yo-yo on a string. To distract myself, I take photos and try to process what I see.
Out one side of the aircraft, a river of aqua-blue ice snakes its way through monstrous peaks that dominate the sky like an army of gods marching toward the sea. On the other, the Copper River delta blankets mustard-colored flats with silver silt lakes, meandering rivers and streams. It makes me think of a pattern you might find on some beautiful fabric used by a high-end designer in a line of spring dresses. I find myself wishing I was a textile designer, or an artist or someone who actually used their talents to do something valuable with an experience like this. Either way, the Alaskan landscape makes me feel awfully small and powerless.
I’m definitely feeling Alaska more than I’m seeing it. I’m a nervous wreck the entire trip, with sweaty palms and knots in my belly. I can’t shake this feeling even though I know I’m not doing anything particularly dangerous. I keep reminding myself of that. I’m on a press trip with travel writers, not pro athletes. It’s a sight-seeing trip with an itinerary jam-packed with sights to see from helicopters and ferry boats and airplanes, cars and vans, over mountains and through tunnels and over seas.
I’m not here on some crazy film shoot for a ski movie or as an editor for a snowboarding magazine, where I’ll have to snowboard some super-steep line over exposure or get dropped off on a ridgeline that will be socked in by clouds so the heli pilot can’t pick us up. I won’t be left deep in the mountains with no way out for two hours while one of our skiers is flown to a hospital after he breaks his leg. Still I have this feeling, as if I’m some kind of emotional meter for the power of nature.
“Wow, you were so quiet,” Rachel says when we pry ourselves from out of the sardine can they call an airplane.
“Yeah, quiet as a mouse,” Jen says, throwing her big fancy camera over her shoulder.
I don’t want them to know I was quietly panicking in the back seat. I don’t know how to explain I’d be more comfortable seeing these mountains from out there in the elements, walking on them or up them until I have blisters and my socks are wet and feet are cold and cheeks numb, snot running down my face. I’d actually be less afraid to ride down them on my snowboard, weightless between turns as I literally fall down the mountain’s steep, snow-covered face. For me, that’s really the only way to get to know them, to “see” them more intimately, the way you don’t really know a person until you see them puke or cry. It seems too difficult even for me to explain.
So I say, “I didn’t know how to use the damned microphone,” rolling my eyes and feigning a half-giggle.
But I know that’s not why. I know deep down I was rendered silent because of everything Alaska forced me to see.
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