Finding an unexpected celebration in Talkeetna, Alaska.
I know: Talkeetna, Alaska, is still far south of the Arctic Circle. It technically doesn’t have “midnight sun.” What it has during the month of June is “civil twilight,” which means that the sun only dips six degrees below the horizon. To the uninitiated, meaning those of us who’ve spent our lives in lower latitudes, “civil twilight” is not the sort of nighttime we’re used to. The 20-hour days feel expansive, generous, dimming only after midnight, nodding to nighttime.
On a cruise-to-land tour in June, I was lucky enough to disembark and land in Talkeetna on June 22, the day after the summer solstice. On paper, the points on the itinerary had run together: get off ship, get on train, get off train, get on motorcoach, and so forth. It was impossible to envision the stops, what would await us between modes of transport. As is true of all travel, no matter how many pictures you’ve seen or guidebooks you’ve read, nothing prepares you for the richness and specificity of what you encounter in person.
I expected Talkeetna to be tiny, a crossroads.
And it is a crossroads in more ways than one. Home to Den’aina Indians, site of the convergence of three glacial rivers — the Susitna, theTalkeetna, and the Chulitna, stop on the Alaskan railroad, now served by the George Parks Highway, it has hosted hunters and railroad workers, miners and a whole lot of tourists. At the edge of the wide, swift rivers, grey with glacial silt, several well-worn paths mark the spots that provide, on clear days, a view of the ghostly peak of Denali in the distance. From the gravel lot where the tourbuses disgorge hundreds of dazed, slow-moving travelers, it’s a short walk into town. A left turn takes you down the street, all the way to the end where the three rivers meet, unless you get sidetracked in a shop or cafe along the way. But eventually, most of the daytrippers get down to the riverbank, hoping for a photo-op. On June 22, 2019, we were among the lucky ones whose view was clear.
That part of the day matched expectations — though we knew we were lucky to see the mountain and not just the clouds that often shroud it from view, Talkeetna had been billed as the “gateway to Denali” and little more. I half-expected it to be a Disneyesque pseudo-town, owned, like so many things along our tour-path, by Princess Cruises.
A little hungry, a little discombobulated after five or six hours on a train, my partner and I walked into town. At the junction of the two main roads, we saw a small, open park. It wasn’t thronged with people; small groups of picnickers and spectators, free-ranging kids and dogs were scattered about, and under a small shelter on a stage, a band was playing. The tourists seemed to be ignoring the park, passing by it to get to the restaurants and down to the river-view.
But we stopped to listen.
Signs in rainbow array marked it as a Pride celebration; Planned Parenthood and some local organizations had small booths set up here and there. Most everyone had tattoos, piercings, interesting hair — body-positive spirit was in the air. Especially following the stuffiness and confinement of the bus, with its atmosphere of anticipation and travel-anxiety that tends to hang over the time spent in transit, this little public park felt like a haven of peace and goodwill.
We stayed awhile, chatting with people, petting dogs, cheering on the dancing children, soaking in the sun. Eventually, we made it down to gaze at the mountain barely outlined against the sky. Along the way, we stopped in a cannabis shop, which is a novelty to us, a sign that Alaska, for all its conservatism, has something different in the mix than North Carolina and the rest of the southeastern U.S. Who knows whether it’s better or not — or just different? That day, Talkeetna, with its RV park and open market and burgeoning rivers and Pride, felt like a glimpse of the world I’d like to live in all the time.
On our way back to the bus, we stopped in the park again, lingering as long as we could. For us, there was more of Alaska to see on this trip, and limited time. But in our wake, the celebration looked like it could go on for as long as anyone wanted to be there, letting the good vibes feel as endless as the light.
Someday, for balance, I want to stay year-round in a place like Alaska or Norway in order to ride the vertiginous cycle of midnight sun and polar sun, to experience the brief, intense luminosity of Arctic summer after such darkness. What gets any creature through the cold night is the expectation of warmth and light, the cycle that promises the return of what is life-giving and sustaining. These are the unanticipated epiphanies of travel, too — the glimpses that remind us things can be different, that the seasons will turn again.
Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.