22nd September 2019
Ideally, my journey alongside the gray whales would have started even further north, perhaps on the ice-strewn shores of the Chukchi Sea amongst the Inupiaq communities that go way back with the whales, or on Unimak Island watching migrating whales funnel between the Aleutian Islands like sand through an hourglass, nudged south by I don’t know what. Do environmental cues alone prompt their departure, the cooling seas and shortening days? Or simply an inexplicable urge, an overpowering desire, to head south? Or maybe they have, in fact, been deliberating the best day to begin their migration, casting their minds back to previous years and weighing the advantages of another day feeding against an extra day in the warmer waters of the south?
Instead, constrained by ferry schedules and visa limitations, I had 36 hours in Anchorage where snow already cloaked the mountains and was forecast to soon settle on the flat expanse of the city. Taking the public bus downtown from the airport plunged me straight into America’s deep end. As I wrestled my bag into the luggage rack, a wild-haired gentleman boarded the bus behind me in a fug of fumes, slurring that he was missing dinner. A woman sitting alone across the aisle from me nose-snorted to herself regularly as we rattled along the wide highway. A sudden bellow from the bus driver at a passenger who’d put his feet up on a chair prompted another nose-snort and woke the flammable guy. He looked around, hazily.
‘Which route are we on?’, he mumbled.
The wrong one, apparently, although he didn’t move. Then it was my stop and bus driver’s tone softened as she told me to ‘stay safe’, instantly making me feel anything but.
Of course, I set off in the wrong direction and soon lost my way in a city of streets with numbers for names. Wanting to ask directions, I spotted four young men coming out of a boarded-up building. Closing the warped door behind them with a mallet, they shouted and spat in the direction of the blinkered building before piling into a weathered wreck of a car and wheel-spinning out of the gravel car park.
Welcome to Anchorage.