First Choices and Last Resorts in Alaska’s Tourist Industry
The underbelly of beauty.
Like so many beautiful, exotic, and romantic places in our world: the wilderness area surrounding the highest point in North America, Mt. Denali (you may know it previously from High School as Mt. McKinley) attracts a lot of tourists.
And like so many places in our world where tourists flock, shops are permanently constructed to graciously receive their cash. Particular to the beautiful and remote mountainous regions is a specific type of product. They are all inclusive, curated experiences for people who want to say they are rugged adventurers, yet cannot live without the comforts of home (and the luxury that is vacation in nature).
I am speaking, of course, of the resort.
Perhaps not (at least at their core) , directly malicious institutions. Or you might not think of them as such, until you showed up to work at one, like I did.
I had been driving for five days up the Alaskan-Canadian highway: I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at a map, but there’s only one way in and out of mainland Alaska by car. For six hundred miles you can see the barrier to your way in. Protected by the Rocky Mountains one keeps driving North, all the way up and in to Alaska proper. It is a very long drive, in case you didn’t get that by the five days thing. Driving alone, when you start imagining the drive you always figure you can cover more miles than you’re actually capable. Not to mention the frequent messy and gravely sections of road which slow your roll. But it is beautiful (and pointless), which like everything in my life, I have to figure out the hard way.
I went up to Alaska with enough money for gas and food and little else. After a week of hasty research I had taken the first job that said they would have me. I was to be a cook and it should’ve been my first warning sign that they took anyone, even if that employee was driving 2,600 miles. It turned out, they had to get employees from much farther away than that.
I was interested in Denali National Park (at least this is what I told myself, though I’m no mountaineer and not a particularly diligent camper), what interested me was the same thing that interested me about all of Alaska. It’s romance and seclusion and the possibilities of a not so rigorous social strati. Yet, where those social strati are more absent, there is an increased probability of abuse, which I had overlooked. And of which, people like me fall into the same trap of romance.
I drove down from Fairbanks, like many Alaskan travelers, looking for a place of respite. I was strung out and tired from the road, but I had enough energy to poke my head around before I officially reported for duty. Pulling in, directly on the highway, they call the conglomeration of resorts and condos, sitting just outside the park, Denali Village. I don’t know if something could literally be the opposite of a ‘village’ atmosphere, but certainly the Princess Luxury Lodge might fit the bill. Unless you wanted to go way back, medieval, with serfs and royalty etc.
When I pulled into the ‘village’, though it was not in any sense, large, I found myself turned around. I decided to park my car and get my bearings. I then had my first strange encounter. Walking down a strip of kitschy gift shops, places which sold ice cream, I saw leaning in the doorjam of a store hawking precious stones a pretty girl hazily staring into the distance. I figured she was as good or better than anyone to ask directions. I approached her inquiring if she knew where the resort I was supposed to work was. She looked at me suspiciously. With a mild but distinct Eastern European accent she said, “I don’t know, I’m not from Alaska.” I said I wasn’t either. She smiled with fake politeness and drifted back inside the shop.
Eventually I found a woman sitting outside a trailer, she seemed local. She was having a serious discussion with a man about how everyone should be obligated to drive a big rig for a portion of their lives, then they would know, those things can’t just slow down on a dime. She pointed me in the right direction.
I had a feeling after these encounters that something was off. But what good is travel if one is constantly judging the places one travels too? You have to give in to the experience. At least I thought this was the point of experience until I got to Alaska.
I got back in my car looking for hope, a direction or redemption that could be found in a life here. Doing a lot of hiking. Appreciating nature. I drove past the sign and into Denali National Park. Wanting to look at a map, something from the Rangers Station, I pulled into a very large and very full parking lot.
It’s a long trek from the outer beginnings of the park to the base of Mt. Denali, so most people park their cars and board a bus for a ‘sightseeing nature’ rumble over pavement. Weaving between the numerous cars of the parking lot, after about a minutes walk I can see the station. A large, modern building, with that kind of nice wood architecture which is supposed to give off an air of ruggedness. Ruggedness with all the comforts that money can afford. It looked designed by the same kind of architects who do the big-box outdoor stores. Even it’s name, Wilderness Access Center, sounded polished by a marketing team. I grabbed an information pamphlet and left as quickly as I could before someone tried to sell me something.
The first thing I noticed, as I leaned on the hood of my car, feeling deeply out of touch with modernity, was that it was a fairly expensive entrance fee to get into the park. I flipped the pamphlet scanning the pictures and stared longingly at a photo of when Denali was first founded as a National Park. Two large timbers holding up a flimsy sign marked the entrance on a gravel road. I thought to myself: that was real interaction with nature.
Though of course, I’m a hypocrite. In 1923 (the year the picture was taken) I would’ve tried to sail for Paris before Alaska. And the modern tourist, who yes does desire some comfort for the price of their trip, these kinds of modern improvements were what made it possible for me at all to drive up to Alaska without much hassle. But nostalgia isn’t rational. I think ultimately what I was looking for was the perceived camaraderie of a time in the distant past. A time so seemingly different from our own, where everything is already for sale.
So I was still at a loss, out of sorts. But maybe it was the stress of the drive. I just needed a good nights sleep. I got back in my car and headed down the road toward the resort where I would cook for the privileged modern traveler.
The resort sits on the banks of a fast and cold river. When I pulled in, my butt still quivering from the days 600 mile drive, I walked from the parking lot to its edge and dipped in my toes. I quickly retracted them. The resort was a large independent, themed, kinda place. Alaska has only a couple basic themes, this one tried to trade on the romance of gold. Finding the office to get my assignment, my lodgings, I found I had to wait around for my manager to get back from somewhere else. In the meantime, starting to wander around the place, I saw who was to be my head chef. He had styled black hair, curved in the front, a shiny sea-wall for the brain. Round glasses with heavy accents. He wore a black, impractically neat chef’s jacket, complemented by a pristine (brand new) thermometer sticking out its pocket. His look made me smile. I recognized it. Appearance maketh the man thinking. I immediately could talk with him easily. Maybe appearances do make things easier, socially, at least in the short term. The clearer a person’s motivations, the less one has to worry about secret desires. The chef was simply nervous and ambitious. You indulge their ambitions quickly, and conversation flows easily. We talked about food for a while before he decided to take me on a personal tour of the compound. There were two places to eat. There was the main dining kitchen, but the place he took me to first was a kind of German themed dinner theater (complete with lederhosen). On the way we walked through the areas the guests walked through. Open spaces with deck chairs and an antique but operational water sifting device for finding gold. The design of the buildings is very kitsch, with what seemed to me unnecessary adornments like their own bookstore (which had like 24 books on Alaska, and a sourdough starter kit for making your own bread). Walking with the head chef he’s kinda opening up to me like I’m the first rational adult that he’s spoken to in a long time. He tells me that this resort is owned by a group of four lawyers, who decided they really loved Alaska (and could invest in its exploitation). I don’t hide my suspicion for the motives of these entrepreneurs, but the head chef seems to respect them, in a boyish boss-employee way. He tells me that they’re smart. They keep everything clean and nice and documented in the kitchens so no one gets sick and so they can’t get sued.
We step past a dumpster into the screen door of the first kitchen. Immediately we are greeted by three young men in cheap caps and cook coats. The head chef introduces me. One of the boys is from Japan, another from the Ukraine and one from Romania. The boy from Romania is trying to be convivial. In front of him is a large mixing bowl filled with previously frozen strawberries and blueberries. He sticks his gloved hands deep inside and turns the mixture around. He puts a strawberry in his mouth, and the word I think he says to me is strudel. It’s clear each of the boys English is not perfect. And they are very young. Later on, when I’m in Anchorage and I tell people of my first stop in Alaska, I learn that it’s common knowledge that this is where kids come to work. Walking out of that kitchen towards the next one, I’m already feeling quite old.
The second kitchen is even worse. It is disorganized and sloppy and the food their putting out is incredibly boring. At saute there are no less than four 21 year olds exasperatedly and what appears to me nonsensically moving pans over 12 burners. I’ve had enough for the day, I need to get out of there, and it must appear that I’m running away cause the head chef yells to me, “Hope to see you tomorrow?”
In no condition financially to make independent decisions, I decide to capitulate for at least a week. I tell myself it wont be the worst job I’ve ever had. Maybe I cant see the benefits yet. Finally my manager shows up. She is a harried, high strung woman, maybe in her mid thirties. She gives off the aura that she has more responsibility than she is truly comfortable with. I wait outside her office as she searches for a set of keys for my room. She starts to lead me away from the main section of the resort, off towards a more woody area. She is chattering, asking me if I need sheets, exasperatedly implying that yes she could go find some if I need them. I tell her I’ll be ok. She does not insist otherwise. Walking down a dirt path we quickly come upon a very long building that I have trouble immediately comprehending. We walk up its middle section of large stairs and I suddenly find myself looking to the left, and then the right, observing a long hallway of doors which have the intimacy of prison cells.
My manager takes me to a door on the right. She unlocks it and opens into a small room with two double bunk beds. They are green framed and their mattresses seem pointy at the ends. I stand sort of shell shocked not being able to express my dismay at sharing a tiny room with three other 19 year old boys. I think I ask if there’s anything more private. She looks at me like I’m a moron. She asks, “Okay?” and walks away. I dreamily stand in the doorway then begin to float after her, with the vague purpose of continuing my complaints.
Walking down the hallway it’s quite long and I’m beginning to take stock of my surroundings. Dirty clothes and cardboard pile against the walls. A broken TV and then I’m registering all these young girls milling around and talking foreignly. One girl comes out of her room hacking with a cough wearing a baggy t-shirt and her nose is red and the place all of a sudden feels very Soviet.
And now I’m a boy detective. After I’ve drifted down and out the hallway, purposefully but with a shamed sheepishness, I ask one of the maintenance guys who all those girls were. He puts on a dirty smile and explains that most are from Belarus. In my head I’m doing the math. I know how much I’m getting paid, 11 dollars, they must be similar, possibly less. They get meals provided but they have to pay their own way over. 1,000 dollar plane ticket at least one way … at the end of the summer, if they spend absolutely nothing, they get to go home with a net earning of a thousand dollars. They’re lured by the possibility of a summer in America and Alaska, and then they get stuck. Live how they’re forced, do the work for rich people, and fly home none the better (or partially better, but far short of the recompense that would be an adult working person).
I’ve worked myself into an intellectual lather as I wander and look in the guests rooms, with their porches and screen doors. I walk along the river and sit next to a young Belorussian couple sharing a Parliament cigarette and all I keep thinking to myself is that slavery still exists. It’s changed in appearance and designation, but little else. Wage slavery still exists guys, I know, no surprise. But I had never been confronted before with such a specific visual example of how it functioned.
At this point I was upset and could hardly think to actually stay. Or thinking maybe I could just find a secluded spot and sleep in my tent. Maybe even I could’ve toughed it out for a little bit, for one check, except that I found myself at the resort bookstore. I plopped into a heavy leather chair, though they were about to close. I mindlessly paged through some history when a pretty girl came in and asked me if I needed something. Her accent was distinct like the others, but her English was good. She was young, but only a hint of acne near her temple gave her away. I asked her how she liked working here. She said it wasn’t that bad. When she said it I believed her. I said I was supposed to be working here. She said “Oh?” and smiled.
A boy outside called for her in their native tongue. I sat and watched. After chatting for a moment she turned around and looked at me and it was then, yes right then, that I decided I could not possibly stay another minute: for in that moment, dear reader, I imagined taking this young girl, lying her down on her back on a lumpy green bunkbed and climbing on top of her, and it is still to this day the single saddest and most depressing thought that has ever occurred to me.
I gave my room key back to the employee manager telling her I couldn’t stay. This upset her disproportionately to how much she had invested in me. She asked me what I was gonna do now that I had driven all this way. I told her I hadn’t driven up to Alaska for a job. This of course confused her, but for people of her type I’ve learned not to waste my time trying to explain.
I had leftover adrenaline from these percolating sensations, of seeing the world how it actually was, the behind the scenes messiness that somehow people can go about their lives avoiding. I got in my car and kept on down the road. It was habit now. I felt lucky to be able to leave, unlike those kids. I’d sleep in my car but at least I had the freedom of that. At least for a while I could keep beauty, its attraction, from being my shame.