Thursday, November 4, 2010

welcome to alaska

Alaska.  What do you think when you hear the word Alaska?  Wilderness?  Polar bears?  Eskimos?  Snow and ice?

I have to confess I thought of all those words plus more when my friend Nancy talked me into going to Alaska to work.  I had done some travel nursing in California.  And that was not adventurous for me because I grew up in northern California.  Never one to take risks, or try anything that was too far outside my comfort zone, I think I must have been temporarily insane when I agreed to go with Nancy to Alaska.  Now mind you, it isn't something you just decide to do and go.  There are phone interviews, paperwork, TB skin tests to update, just to name a few of the obstacles, and I figured there was a good chance I would be rejected back out into the miasma of travel nurses looking for contracts.

The year was 2008.  And my luck held or didn't, I couldn't decide which.  I was hired for a med-surg unit in a town called Bethel, in Alaska.  Nancy had already worked a contract or two there as an OB nurse, so I was lucky.  (She was my Type-A friend, the one who had dragged me through my BSN in college and kept me on track with deadlines.)  She gave me lists of things to bring, what to mail to myself and the cheapest way to mail it, what to wear, even taught me about ice cleats (ICE CLEATS?!?!) and had me so prepared I felt snug as a bug in a rug when we finally left Birmingham on December 27.  It was the longest trip I had ever been on, 5000 miles that just ground you down to doodle dust by the time you finally arrived in Bethel.  Nanc was smart though, she had our tickets arranged so that we got to stay overnight in Anchorage, with time to buy even more supplies.

I don't remember any plane karma happening.  I think maybe I was in such shock that I was actually headed to Alaska for thirteen weeks that I wouldn't have noticed anything short of an atomic blast on that trip.  We headed to Bethel the next morning.  We landed and I got my first look at the Alaskan tundra up close.  It was below freezing (of course it was winter!) but the wind chill took a few more degrees off the temperature, and it was a whopping -41F when we got there.  A brilliant sun was shining in the sky, but shed no warmth on us.  We made a mad scramble for a cab with the cabbie loading the luggage we pointed out to him in the pile at the curb along with our bins of supplies.  Then we headed for the hospital first so that Nancy could get the cab vouchers to pay the cab driver, and the keys to our new home away from home.  Our other occupant, a security guard, was also headed to the hospital to pick up a behavioral health patient and head back to Anchorage to the big psych unit there later that day.  I was sitting with the cabbie in the car, and looked back behind me, amazed that he got all our luggage in one small place.  I looked, turned back toward the front and sat there thinking.  What was I looking for?  What was picking around the edges of my brain like a vulture on a carcass?...

Then it hit me. 

My small luggage was missing.  The one I carried on the plane with me all the way from Alabama.  The one that held ALL my electronics, the stuff I couldn't live without, being the techie geek I am...at least $2000 worth of some of the things I held dearest.  Camera, laptop, all the cords, my new PSP with all the movies and games I'd gotten for Christmas. 

HOLY SHIT...I sat there quietly swallowing down the lump in my throat that tasted like bile.  Tried to think what to do.  So I calmly said to the cab driver, a pleasant Asian gentleman....

"we left my laptop at the airport." 

Nanc came out of the hospital about then, and I told her what had happened.  I thought I was going to hurl right there in the cab.  She said "go back NOW, and look for it."  The cabbie by then had said about 300 times "I NO SEE LUGGAGE I NO SEE LUGGAGE I NO SEE LUGGAGE" until I took pity on him and said...

"It's not your fault.  It just happened.  It was hidden behind that last big bin from my sight and I just missed it too.  If it is gone, it is gone and no need for us to get all worked up about it...it's ok, it's ok."  I do that well you know, cover my panic with calm.  So the calmer I seem in a storm, the more panicked I usually am.

By this point we were flying in the cab back to the airport.  And screw the electronics, I was hoping I survived the cab ride on the snow and ice covered road.  Nanc had elected to go to the apartment and unlock it and get ready for when I got back.  I think she was getting some Valium ready for me.

There is only one main road in Bethel, and altogether there are about 7 miles of paved roads.  I think we took about two minutes to travel about half that distance.  We pulled up to the airport.  Where there had been probably a hundred people arriving and departing and picking people up, along with a couple dozen cabs in the parking lot when we had left it about fifteen minutes earlier there now stood....

Nothing.  Not one living soul was there as we pulled up and my heart hit the floor.  But I was determined to keep a stiff upper lip (hell my lip was frozen by then anyway so that was no stretch for me).  Then I looked at the sidewalk just outside the terminal and there all alone sat...you guessed it....my luggage.  Laptop still slung across the top of the small rolling suitcase that held everything else. 

I was dumbfounded.  I started to climb out of the cab to go get it and the cab driver hollered "NO! YOU NO GET! I GET I GET!!!"  and he jumped out and grabbed it up like a newborn baby, cradling it in his arms back to the cab where he placed it gently inside, all the while sporting a grin that went from ear to ear. 

And back we went to the apartment.  I was still in shock.  Anywhere else in the world, that suitcase and laptop would have lasted less than a minute.  But there, thousands of miles from home, in the middle of one of the most remote places in America, my belongings survived and waited patiently for my return.

And I started to feel it.  The magic of Alaska.  A warm feeling that was to happen to me again and again as I discovered Alaska and made new friends, learning about a culture that was unique and special in many ways.

And Nanc said it best perhaps: "Out here no one has more than anyone else, everyone is mostly equal, and people respect your property, because living here is hard work, and we are all isolated." 

People.  Brought together for different reasons, trying to survive and live with dignity.  A lesson I was to come to understand even more clearly over the course of the year I spent there.
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