Autumn arrived in Alaska almost overnight, a subtle but tangible transformation, as if the state had slipped a golden overcoat over its summer garb. In the Chugach Mountains, precipitation crystallized and accumulated, and rock faces that were slate gray one day were pale and glistening pearls the next—a sparkling backdrop to Anchorage’s sparse skyline. In town, the souvenir shops emptied of tourists, and the vendors hawking reindeer sausage on every corner had a sleepy look about the eyes.
In the jargon of the tourism industry, this was shoulder season, the languid interlude between peak and off-peak seasons. I’d come to Anchorage for an early September travel show and, along with 800 conference participants, had been trotted around the tourist track, from glacier cruises to brewery tours. I’d even petted a baby sled dog. An educational train ride on the Alaska Railroad was the last of the week’s activities.
Chugging down Cook Inlet, we were taught to remember the five types of Alaskan salmon using our fingers as a mnemonic device. Chum (rhymes with thumb), apparently the least desirable salmon, is also called dog salmon. Point to your eye to recall sockeye. Your longest finger represents the king, or chinook, and your ring finger hosts the silver salmon, the coho. Your pinkie is, of course, pink.
Shoulder season, we learned, overlaps with spawning season, the time of year when the salmon were making the long journey from the Pacific back to the calm waters and gravel beds from which they came. I listened as the tour guide described how the fish would be dramatically transfigured as they swam, earning some of the nicknames derivative of their body’s swift changes along the way. Before spawning, sockeye, or red salmon, turn various shades of maroon; chinook, chum, and coho males grow aggressive-looking snouts and large teeth; and pink become humpy, bearing a grotesque hump for the journey to the waters where they will reproduce and die. Whoever had christened the Humpy’s Alehouse I’d seen in Anchorage was, to my mind, somewhat redeemed.
I turned my eyes to the passing inlet. Only two weeks before this business trip to Alaska, my husband and I had packed our belongings to move from Minneapolis to Seattle. The transition had been difficult, involving everything from a venomous spider bite—the effects of which I could still feel in the aching joints of my left leg—to a troubling diagnosis that sent Marc to be with his ailing father in Boston while I packed boxes, limped up and down stairs, and watched our car die a sudden death three days before we were to drive it across half the country.
Soon after my husband left to see his father, the bite—until then only a mysterious white bubble on my ankle—had blushed with the threat of infection. The blister broke, the ulcer beneath it deepened, and sinister red arms spiraled out, web-like, from the wound. My muscles cramped, first in my calf and then in my thigh; my joints ached, first the knee and then the hip. Doctors puzzled over my symptoms and pumped me full of antibiotics.
Surrounded by boxes and bubble tape, I browsed low-budget cars on Kelley Blue Book and worried over nauseating Google images of necrosis. With each new antibiotic, I squinted at small print, typing in search terms like doxycycline monohydrate, sulfamethoxazole/trimethoprim, cephalexin, only to learn that the bacteria in my body was rapidly adapting as I read, building resistance to my latest prescription. One night, watching the full moon rise, I imagined an epic transformation, complete with a red spandex outfit and the ability to scale walls and crawl across ceilings.
In the full sun of my real life, I was facing a different kind of mutation. We were moving, leaving behind the walls, floors, and ceilings of an apartment I’d come to love; soon, I would be surrounded by unfamiliar carpeting, screenless windows, and all the strange trappings of a new abode. My body would need to conform to a new place, climate, and culture. And, as it turned out, I wouldn’t have any super powers to aid me in the transition.
There was a commotion at the front of my train car. Passengers waving smart phones raced to inlet-facing windows. Peering with them at the passing waves, I glimpsed the white flag of a beluga, a whale that had adapted over time to Arctic living by blending in with the ice caps, and which, unlike other cetaceans, seasonally sheds its white mantle for a fresh coat of skin.
My business in Anchorage concluded, I decided to rent a car and head north alone. Before stories of bear attacks and strange encounters in remote parts could threaten my resolve, I bought a large can of bear spray and set off.
In my rental, a pair of Air Force sunglasses stared me down from the dash, forgotten by the previous driver, whose face I could almost picture—ruddy and creased with exposure—behind the aviator lenses. Reaching for the shades, I slipped them on. As I pulled out of the parking garage and past Humpy’s Alehouse, I caught sight of myself in the rearview mirror. A blonde corkscrew curl hung over the right lens; my nose seemed small and severe under the oversized frames, my lips a thin, determined line. Suddenly, I no longer looked as if this was my first time in Alaska.
I drove toward the freshly coated peaks. If only donning a new identity were so simple.
I’d rented a cabin in Talkeetna, just over one hundred miles north of Anchorage, a town so small and unassuming that since 1997 its mayor has been a cat named Stubbs. Main Street consisted of a roadhouse, a brewpub, a general store, and the colorful Mountain High Pizza Pie. I ordered the specialty pie to go—a reindeer sausage pizza called “Game On”—and polished it off in the solitude of my cramped kitchen.
“You may regret that come Christmastime,” my husband warned when I called him later that night to check in. “Seems like a pretty sure way to get yourself on the naughty list.”
The next morning, I shamelessly ordered a side of reindeer sausage with my sourdough hotcakes at the Talkeetna Roadhouse, then, donning my Top Gun shades, drove toward Denali National Park. The leaves of every deciduous tree lining the George Parks Highway fluttered saffron, accented with crimson berries and gleaming with a recent rainfall that had brought on an incessant chill, a subtle warning of the winter ahead.
It was shoulder season. Beneath the sandy-tan currents of creeks and rushing rivers, the salmon were spawning. The moose were mating in forests of spruce and birch, and the bears were scooping up pawfuls of blueberries, foraging a bounty that would build a layer of fat under their glossy coats, readying themselves for a long wait.
And the humans—well, we were scavenging, too. As I waited in Denali’s interim visitor center to ask a ranger about a trail, I overheard three desperate fathers inquiring about restaurants.
“Maybe the gas station’s open?” the ranger suggested, adjusting his belt beneath a protruding belly.
A child whined, and the dads exchanged looks of despair. As late-season visitors, we’d been prepared to relinquish a few perks. We knew, for example, that the shuttle buses that ply Denali’s ninety-mile Park Road were no longer running, that only a third of that road could be accessed by private cars, and that after fifteen miles, the pavement turned to gravel, a route we drove at our own risk.
What few visitors realize is that when shoulder season arrives, Alaskans react as if on a natural cycle all their own, as set in their ways as the salmon swimming the reverse current. The Alaskans were hibernating ahead of the bears, or they’d migrated south with the birds—either seemed possible. But what was impossible was to find anyone serving up a meal within fifty miles of the park.
Rubbing one eye, the ranger directed me to the Mt. Healy Overlook trailhead, and I set off, grateful for the PowerBar I’d bought at Talkeetna’s general store. As I started up the switchbacks, I startled a ptarmigan, which strutted indignantly off the path, fluffing gray-brown plumage he would soon molt for a white winter camouflage. Otherwise, I saw only occasional hikers, alerted to their presence by cowbells tied on to their packs to warn off the bears.
The slope steepened dramatically, and just as I began to feel a slow burn emanating from the bite on my left ankle, I reached the overlook. Below me, the brilliant amber of the trees was like a mother vein spread across the landscape or gold spilt from a miner’s pan. The sun struck through the partial cloud cover to hit the luminous, snow-capped peaks in a way that recalled the sublime paintings of early Romantics. In the profound silence, I could hear the wind whistling against the mountains, the sound of vast spaces traversed.
I thought of all the landscapes I’d passed through on the long drive from Minneapolis to Seattle, and those I’d known more intimately—places that, at one time or another, I had called home. Over the past ten years, I’d moved my life from Iowa to Europe, from Seattle to Boston to Minneapolis. Like many of my generation, I’d seen my restlessness as a right, an expression of freedom as natural as any species’ migration from place to place.
But I had also felt every goodbye, grieved each apartment, fallen into bouts of nostalgia for favorite parks and cafes. A creature of habit, I clung to old routines, requiring months to establish new ones. I missed faraway friends, took time to trust acquaintances, and, in general, considered a heavy dose of melancholy part and parcel—or perhaps the price—of my mobility.
There just hadn’t been much time, I realized now, to process this latest change, away from family and jobs in the Midwest to a new life in Seattle. Even as I flew to Anchorage for the conference, I should have known that I had not yet landed, that I was still in an interim stage, neither here nor there, not yet arrived, not yet departed—trapped in my own sort of shoulder season.
Famished after the hike, I drove off in search of provisions. Just outside the park, an official blue and white sign promised, “All Services One Mile,” and on a line below that, “May to September.”
There were no services. “Denali Village,” a Disneyesque cluster of gift shops and eateries, was a ghost town. Huge lodges were boarded up, their restaurants shuttered. A vision of steaming links of reindeer venison swam before my eyes. I drove for almost an hour before I found the nearest food source—a Chevron station.
Later that evening, back in Talkeetna, on the banks of the roiling Susitna River, I heard a quiet splash. A salmon had exited the main current. A chum (rhymes with thumb). Still facing upstream, he was moving his foot-long body just enough to stay in one place, parked, so it seemed, near my feet. Like me, he’d pulled off on the shoulder of it all, resting from his nature-driven journey hundreds of miles from the Pacific to his spawning grounds.
He must have been nearly there, given the olive-green and brown mottled stripes along his sides, the maroon belly I could glimpse as he maneuvered beneath the water, and the snout-like jaw—all features he did not have when he started his swim from these waters as a silver-scaled beginner. But time, the most insistent of currents, had irrevocably changed him on his travels.
I thought of my own changes, of the swift move to Seattle and the frantic desire to make it home. Life, it seemed, was a dynamic process, an incessant movement from one state to the next. But new scales would come, and perhaps the skin beneath would be thicker, and eventually I would acquire the skills and the savvy—blending effortlessly into a crowd, scouting the best food source, attracting kindred companions—to thrive in my new habitat.
Then, maybe I would recognize shoulder season as an integral part of the journey, rather than something to survive before setting off onto the next stage. As a chance to breathe while my body healed and grew into its new environment. Perhaps I could soon accept the fading of old ways as the beginning of new routines, an opening to fresh routes. Now was the time to forage and collect and to hold close all the good, small things that fortified and reminded me, in the midst of foreign surroundings, of the way home.
A ragged dorsal fin waved just above the surface. I raised my least desirable digit in a kind of lame salute. The salmon opened and closed his mouth a few times, as if in farewell, and shimmered back into the flow.