Up to Alaska last week to visit old friends and relive fragrant memories of previous trips —
Landing on a short uphill grass strip near a native village and later taking off on that strip and off the edge of a cliff. Fishing in a fjord near Juneau as a dark enormity rolled up from the deep, a humpback 30 feet off starboard. Encountering a moose while biking around Anchorage.
Sitting in a friendly cafe in Sitka that felt like family. Hiking the Iditarod trail and seeing the body of a moose who broke through the ice of a lake and drowned. Going to the state fair in Palmer and mingling with Alaskans in a state of euphoria produced by sunlight.
It is a state that one remembers long afterward.
Last week I sat in a little cafe in Anchorage and got into conversations by the simple device of asking directions. In a state that offers so much solitude, people are happy to talk.
I met a couple who’d lived for many years in the mountains east of there, raised two kids, got divorced, and now live a few blocks apart in the city. “We’re still best friends,” she said cheerily and he gave her a wan look.
He is still in love with her, he said, and wants to get back together, and she isn’t interested. Instead of directions, you get a novella.
I met a Tlingit woman who gave me her unvarnished views on Alaska politics and an old trucker who hauled materials for the pipeline, and finally quit, fed up with the rules and regulations. His first truck was a White, a good truck, and he wound up driving a Peterbilt, which he hated.
“Never buy a truck that is on the assembly line on Friday and they finish it on Monday,” he said. He was once fined $250 in Arizona for speeding, and the highway patrol sent him a picture of his truck taken by a roadside camera on the desert that also recorded his speed, and he sent them a photo of $250 arranged on his kitchen table.
I was sitting in my hotel room in Anchorage on Wednesday morning, when someone yelled, “Open up! Open the door!”
I opened the door. Two uniformed officers stood there. It wasn’t me they wanted. They were yelling at the door next to mine.
One cop had a revolver drawn, aimed at the next door. Another cop yelled, “Open the door now! And keep your hands where we can see them!” Police can yell really loud and their diction is quite clear.
An officer with an assault rifle stepped into my room and said that they had a warrant out for a man next door and that he had announced he had a gun. The officer opened the door to my balcony and suggested I go into the hall. So I stepped out, barefoot, without glasses, in jeans and a T-shirt.
Seven officers stood in the hall, including a slight young woman cop, and four of them had guns drawn, including her, and were focused on the door next to mine. They were on high alert. I slipped past the uniforms and none of them glanced at me. The one closest to the door yelled again, “Open the door! Now!”
I’m a civilian. I lead a casual jokey life. I mess around. I wouldn’t know how to bring that steady intensity to bear on a closed door. That’s just a fact. I can do panic; I don’t do high-focus readiness. If I am responsible for your security, you are in serious trouble.
They got their man. He surrendered and was handcuffed and I got a glimpse of him in the hall, a skinny guy with a hangdog expression, wanted for drug dealing. He had been dealing them out of the hotel room. Whatever drugs he himself was on were not a kind that make you smarter.
Nobody I talked to in Alaska began a sentence with “I was reading an article the other day that said that ...” Everything they said was from their own experience.
This is different from the world I live in, of people tuned in to media.
I can say from my own experience that an armed man dealing drugs in the next room is a danger to me and that I maintain my casual jokey way of life thanks to public servants whose training enables them to bring highly focused attention to bear.
That’s what I know.
Garrison Keillor is an author, radio personality and weekly columnist for Washington Post News Service.