Al Batt: If you look for enough eagles, everything looks like an eagle

Published 8:45 pm Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt

Flying is relaxing.

Al Batt

It’s the kind of relaxation found in a clinic waiting room while you’re standing by to see a doctor.

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I was on my way to the “Second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning.” Those are the words of J.M. Barrie and are Peter Pan’s directions to Neverland. I was headed to Haines, Alaska, in November.

Marcus Aurelius said, “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive.”

That’s my mantra while traveling, even if flying makes me feel as if I’d tugged on Superman’s cape, spit into the wind and pulled the mask off that old Lone Ranger. Things can go wrong when you fly. Flying could screw up a one-car funeral procession.

But I made it to Haines, which is nothing but scenery. It’s an escape into nature’s embrace. My perch there made me feel as if I were sitting at the cool kids’ table — outside in a November drizzle. A drizzling day is the area’s idea of a warm welcome. You don’t get to Haines by making a wrong turn leaving Minnesota. You have to want to be there.

I was there because I’d been in the second grade when a wonderful teacher read to us about the Tlingit people naming the Valley of the Eagles along the Chilkat River outside of Haines. I’d determined that one day I’d visit Haines and not only see those eagles but also the bear essentials — brown, black and gummy. If a tree fell in the forest, the eagle sees it, the deer hears it and the bear smells it.

John Denver, when not singing about how thankful he was to be a country boy, warbled, “I know he’d be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly.”

Imagine you’re hearing Morgan Freeman’s voice saying, “Alaska. It’s roomy and the weather can be intermittently dreadful.”

So many people smoked salmon, I worried about secondhand salmon smoke. As one who believes the secret to surviving cold weather is to dress like a dork, I felt at home and it allowed me to be hot and cold at the same time. People in Haines dress for the weather, not for style. Why dress up when there is nobody to impress? Carhartt is suitable for weddings.

Alaska was purchased from Russia for two cents an acre because Russia used an incompetent appraiser. The state is about one-fifth the size of the lower 48 and is so big that when I went to an echo point and yelled, “Hello,” it took 8 hours and 32 minutes for it to reply.

Haines is at the northern end of the Inside Passage, roughly 80 miles north of Juneau (4.5 hours by ferry on the Alaska Marine Highway System) and 14 miles south of Skagway (363 miles by road). The ferry, a “poor man’s cruise ship,” was the magic carpet that delivered me to Haines, situated at the upper end of North America’s longest and deepest fjord.

Haines is where the rainforest and the tundra cavort, creating an intoxicating mix of alpine meadows, mountains and fjords. Things conspire to flatten the imagination. Mountains prevent that.

Haines has no malls, fast food restaurants, big box stores, traffic jams or traffic lights. It’s small, both intimate and immense and a place where angels would land. It’s where both visitors and residents look around.

You get paid to live there. The 2023 Permanent Fund Dividend amount is $1,312 per person. Oil and mining revenues fund this annual payment.

I grew up on a Minnesota farm where a mountain was an anthill or a gopher mound. Someone asked if I’d like my photo taken by a mountain. I was excited about having a mountain take my picture, but they meant I’d be standing in front of a mountain while a fellow with major-league whiskers manned the camera. Getting your photo taken with mountains in the background keeps you humble

I sat in the aisle seat on my flights to and from. They’re more comfortable than the middle seat and teach dodging skills when bags, elbows and beverage carts threaten to attack.

I hope the words of Marcus Aurelius and I do much more traveling together.

Al Batt’s columns appear in the Tribune every Wednesday.