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If the goal was to take a break from the welter of worries in healthcare, why then did my wife buy me “The Ghost Map,” an investigation into London’s deadly 1854 cholera epidemic, to read while busing through/sailing around Alaska?
Maybe it was about surprise. Like zesty reindeer sausage or creamy blueberry ice cream made in Sarah Palin’s hometown. Or the remains of a caribou that hunters left alongside Highway 8 that cringingly broke up an 8-hour spine-rattling bus ride. Or because Alaska has so few paved roads, there’s nothing really called an on/off ramp. Or the waitress in the tilted Salmon Bake diner in Denali who wore blood-red patterned fishnet stockings along with blue ballet slippers.
Maybe it was about personal hygiene, in cramped quarters. There were plenty of hand sanitizers on the Diamond Princess, but the 4th deck medical department seemed a busy place. And everyone seemed to know someone who was "quarantined to quarters." Still, unlike our last Princess cruise, no one was helicoptered off the ship.
Maybe it was about personal safety. Like the warning sign a hotel posted in all windows about a bear sighting. Or about safety ignored – a motorcyclist critically injured near Wasilla when thrown from his bike, no helmet in use.
Maybe it was about doubting the comments and life experiences that bus drivers and tour guides tossed about, begun with lines like “In the day...” It’s a land of chest-pounding tall-tale tellers, eager to seduce your wits, wallet or virtue. As one Juneau salesman mockingly put it, you’ve come all these thousands of miles to spend more than a thousand bucks on a ring or necklace that you never previously wanted from a store you’ve never been before sold by a person you’ll never find again if you've been scammed --- would that seem like a good idea in the Lower Forty-eight?
“The Ghost Map” was about a couple of pioneering men, worlds apart in personality and learning, who tracked down the source of a water-borne illness while so-called experts of the day doubted their nearly every step.
In Alaska, it was a Wisconsin guy named Clark who grew rhubarb like crazy in Skagway that prevented Gold Rush miners from dying of scurvy. Now tourists can sample kale and stevia in that same community garden – Jewell Gardens – while glassblowers ply their craft against a backdrop of Californian Aaron Schmidt plucking his ukulele.
In Alaska, there are jobless school teachers waiting tables alongside former Air Force electricians, a bartender named Zak from Kissimmee, Fla., fabric sellers in Denali who spend part of the year in Green Bay worrying about their Packers, a graduate of Fresno’s Roosevelt High School who splits her year between Utah and a Denali art shop, a former New Jerseyite working in a Talkeetna rail station and rooting for the Yankees, and Sue from Texas who tirelessly and warmly greets crabby hotel guests, explaining, “I won’t harsh them, my boss won’t harsh them. They’ve come in after a long trip.”
Stunning in abundance, scarcity and severity. Pods of whales, 3 million acres of wilderness called Glacier Bay, eagles, seals, galloping moose, drinking bottled water from the 3rd Industrial Zone, Zhongshan, Guangdong, China.
In the end, the world was a better place thanks to what occurred in “The Ghost Map.” The book, like Alaska, an opportunity for perspective, a sense of proportion, an awareness of eternity, of interdependence.