Denali National Park boasts isolation and pristine wilderness. Before you enter the Park, you pass the massive lodges built by the cruise lines in an unofficial town by the name of Glitter Gulch, but it only takes a moment to exit the distopia of Princess and return to Denali, where the world reminds us of our mortality and size. Fifteen minutes further north, the small population of locals find home in Healy, pushing prams with chubby babies under the shadow of a mountain with the same name.
I had passed through Healy in a flash in the waning days of summer the year before, sharing the journey with loved company. But this time I was alone… sort of. I had traveled up with a friend from winter who turned out to be an absolute psychopath when I refused to sleep with him (yes, my life is a living soap), and after a brush with the Alaska State Troopers, he was more or less banished from the brief expanse of Healy. It was poetic Alaskan justice. Thus, Healy is a blur… but I do remember having absolutely no idea where the guide camp was that I’d be living all summer, and I found it by chance. Fortunately, there were only three major turns in Healy so the odds of finding the correct turn were high.
It was a dump. The eclectic spasms of a hoarder strewn among thick stands of white spruce: Mantown, Healy, AK, my home for the summer, guide camp. Excavation equipment perched next to rafts twice my age, one could find mattresses in quantity enough to start a hotel business aside dead refrigerators and cracked antlers, and in the middle of it all were our cells: our rooms. With paper thin walls and no heat, they were miserable. My yurt in Ketchikan was a palace in comparison, and I’m not a picky person… I loved my yurt. But misery loves company. And the miserable soul that is John White, intentionally or unintentionally, devised everything to keep us miserable as well, including what should have been a haven to save the madness of working for a dictator and slave driver. What baffled me was that he always scolded us for being ungrateful, that we had the best housing in all of Denali… and he couldn’t be more wrong (I saw all the other companies’ housing… not only did they have heat, they had clean, pleasant rooms with running water at all times and a shitter that wouldn’t transmit hepatitis). It’s one of those things that I would have been totally ok with it if that’s what was advertised… but, no surprise, John was a liar in addition to a madman.
I wandered around looking for any semblance of life in this funeral pier for machines and furniture. And some time after, I was greeted by Doyle and Tucker. And Tucker had a laugh… that I can’t even describe. … I really can’t describe it. You just have to be fortunate enough to experience. It echoed through the woods like a haunting wolfen call, and then you’d realize… that’s no animal. That’s Tucker.
And that’s really all that’s worth mentioning. Mantown was such a shit show, there’s no grand stories to recount and few laughs to share in warm memory. We were all so angry and so exhausted that we constantly took it out on each other. John hired thieves and sexist assholes to fill his business, and I was the only woman. They left me with no food and no hope. We did not look out for each other, which defied every aspect of who I am. I was forced to exist as an antithesis of myself, and I wept often to feel so vile and trapped. But in retrospect, I feel tough and capable.
But the river was beautiful, and there were souls worth knowing if one looked. And in the rare chances when we could be fully happy, we shared adventures to counter the upset, perhaps because we were simply so grateful for the fleeting moment, or perhaps because it was a splendid place beneath the squalor. We played in mud, yelled at moose, hiked mountains, hid under blankets with frosting and beer and cheesey movies, watched stunning sunsets, wrecked restaurants, and grew as the haggard legends of the seasonal realm of Denali. We showered rarely. We limped openly. We laughed at each crack in our bones from long days and many miles with no rest. We matted our hair and wore brightly colored fleece without an ounce of shame. We rotted with no other option. We relished the compliments of busboys and dishwashers at our saga. We were Nenana raft guides.