“9-o’clock!!!” Phyllis erupts. We turn like an organized military battalion.
Everyone’s eyes narrow. And then grow wide.
Well, almost everyone.
Stacy massages her temple as if she has a migraine. She knows something we don’t.
“3 o’clock!!!” shouts Earl.
You see my girlfriend Melissa and I are in Alaska. It’s 2013. It is our first long vacation together. Dating rules dictate that this is a big step in any relationship.
But so far had NOT been so good.
Our bags were lost in transit. And when they were located somewhere in Kansas or wherever, we were told the bags would chase us around our tour of Alaska, always a couple of days behind.
Furthermore, our entire tour group were senior citizens deep into life. Folks had names like Phyllis, Milton and Earl. They would constantly offer bags of seemingly endless Werther’s Original toffee candy to us, which we’d always politely decline. But anytime we offered the group my mom’s homemade theplas, Earl would gladly accept–every time. He’d then educate the rest of the group on how they shouldn’t be scared of ethnic food and how they should just try “Adi’s spicy naan.”
Thepla is not naan, Earl.
And on a hike to pan for Alaskan gold, a snow bank gave way and I fell into the freezing river. That was bad. But when the handsome, chiseled hiker guide struggled mightily to pull me up and out of the river, my heavy, wet, and only pair of pants fell to my ankles in front of our whole group. And, as I watched this man slowly realize the challenge of saving someone who had eaten one too many Taco Bell double decker tacos in his life, I wonder, when we locked eyes, if he saw me signal the “all clear” — that it shouldn’t haunt him forever if he simply just let me back into the river slowly and embarrassingly to my final resting place.
Finally, my girlfriend is an animal lover. But thus far we had seen no wildlife which brings us back to where we started–on the longest bus ride of our tour, on our way to a ski resort. And this was the leg of our trip where we were assured wildlife.
I walk up to the front of the bus to get some answers. “You think we’ll see polar bears or moose or something?”
“Actually, did you know that moose are much more territorial and dangerous than polar bears?” says Stacy, our tour guide for the entire trip, not technically answering the question.
She gets on the bus intercom “if you see any wildlife, shout out a clock direction so we can all see it.” She smiles at me in a way that makes it clear our conversation is over.
“6 o clock, bald eagle!” screeches Winnie a few moments later.
“8’oclock bald eagle” shouts Milton.
“Eagle, 1500 hours!” bellows Earl. He’s smiling like an asshole while the rest of the group struggles to do the math.
It’s at this point that I realize why Stacy is massaging her head. It turns out bald eagles in Alaska are as abundant as squirrels in New Jersey. And for the next 3.5 hours, Stacy will be listening to 30 senior citizens — all with goldfish-level memories –shouting out arbitrary digits every fifteen seconds with relentless, genuine surprise and glee.
We finally get to the resort and rush to get our skis in time. But the slopes are closed today — in January by the way — because of global warming. The only option is snow trekking.
“What’s snow trekking?” I ask and find out from the blonde boy at the counter that it is basically strapping tennis racquets to our feet and clomping around for $25 per person for 2 hours blocks.
“What trails are medium difficulty,” I ask, trying to impress Melissa, and the 17 year-old explains to me that there aren’t any trails for trekking. “You can kinda just go where you want, sir.”
“Sir.” What a bastard.
It sounds stupid but it’s cheap, and Melissa looks thrilled. So we clomp around the resort like idiots for hours. Melissa looks happy even though I’m pretty sure we’re lost. For a moment, I let go of my sense of time and concern, not even caring if the lodge will pro-rate our extra time … but then it starts snowing.
It’s magical. But also cold. So we begin awkwardly clomping our way back, wherever back is, waddling like two penguins.
“Mel, I know you love animals. I’m sorry we haven’t seen any.” I say slowly between breaths that are short, my words staccato because of the cold.
It’s starting to get subzero now and it’s dusk. And I think we might be lost.
“Are you kidding? My dad would’ve cried,” my girlfriend whispers. “He loves bald eagles.”
I’d only met him once so far, at Melissa’s family camping trip. He was the strong and silent type. Him and I both slept in a tent together and he kept a gun under his pillow. So when I hear that a bird makes him cry, I am surprised to hear this tiny but significant insight into this man.
We come to a clearing in the trees. “Yes! I can see the resort in the distance!” Mel shouts.
But I see a dark figure right in-between us and the resort, standing still.
It’s a moose.
“Mel, it’s a moose.”
“Oh how cute, a moooose!” she coos, likely only having Bullwinkle as her point of reference.
Stacy’s words — they are worse than polar bears — are running through my head. I explain the situation and now we are both at the appropriate level of terror.
We start to take a long route around the tree line to get back to the hotel, making a painfully long curve around this moose.
We take one step and peer into the distance. The moose is looking directly at us. A dark reality begins to sink in. I realize I am likely going to die–a bloodied mess in the snow. My body eventually will be identified by authorities only because of the rented tennis racquets on my feet. The 17-year old clerk will refer to me a “the nice old man” to the Anchorage area press who will let the story lead because it bleeds. The lodge will likely wait a couple of weeks before sending the snowshoe rental bill to my estate.
We take a second step. My senses heighten. I can now hear the crunch of every awkward step we take. A light wind gently whooshes past a snow bank and moves from our right to left. I can see the wind drawing whimsical designs in the heavy falling snow.
Right to left. Ugh.
I resolve to learn cardinal directions after this trip. That is, if we survive. We hear the loud crack of a tree branch break behind us which jolts us and causes us to nearly lose our balance. I remind Melissa to breathe.
A third step.
I have now positioned myself between her and the moose. And while I want to hold Melissa’s hand, I know that it would likely cause one or both us to fall. I begin to run through scenarios. They all end in me getting crushed by the weight of a moose pressing down directly on me or onto a tennis racquet, effectively pasta-fying my body. But some scenarios allow Melissa to escape and I begin to focus on how to create the longest distraction.
For just a split second, I realize this is the first person I’ve thought about giving my life for.
It’s a bad idea, but I grab Melissa’s hand.
“Mel, whatever happens, you’ll be okay.”
She doesn’t hear me. She’s fumbling with her day bag and pulls out her binoculars. As I watch her peering through them, I can see tears mixing with snow melting on her face.
And, then, something strange happens. Mel starts laughing. Slowly, at first, but then so hard that she falls butt-first into the snow.
I assume she has had a mental breakdown and fallen into hysteria, so I try to get her to calm down.
While she can’t even breathe from the laughing, she finds a moment to say, “no, no” and hands me the binoculars.
I look through and see it too.
The moose is a statue.
We pass the metal protector and see our group having dinner across the window wall.
“Find anything out there?” says Earl, sarcastically. He has two completely overfilled buffet plates in his hands. I look at his wife Phyllis who already has her own plate. I look at all the seniors who are completely content with every aspect of this trip. And then I look at my girlfriend–now wife–who is shivering.
But she’s safe.
“Yea, Earl. Found something.”