I moved to Alaska a month after college graduation to start a job working in Denali National Park in the summers and living in Anchorage in the winter. The impact the 18 months I lived there had on who I am is something I'll never really understand, both with respect to the awe-inspiring beauty and unwavering harshness of the land itself, and the people I met.
One such person was John Allen. Thinking of him reminds me of how truly being yourself, oddities and all, can be so wonderful, and how endearing those oddities may be. He's been a Denali Visitor Transportation Service bus drive since dinosaurs roamed the earth, and has more stories than you can imagine. He's also a poet and a writer, and after I left he'd send me stories written on a typewriter about all sorts of things. I have one of his poems "glassed, framed, and hanging on the wall," as he would say.
Last night, my boyfriend's father sent me something he'd written when they came to visit and we had the pleasure of riding out into Denali National Park on John's bus, and I can't wait to share it. Thanks so much, Joel, for documenting a monumental event in bus riding, and for allowing me to share it!
About a half-hour in, John informed us of the “big four”: caribou, moose, Dall (mountain) sheep, and grizzly. To sight all four was extremely rare. He termed it “the sweep,” and he had a broom ready to hang in the highly unlikely event we spotted all four.
John, our bus driver, was the kind of person often known as a “character.” He was about fifty and would have been otherwise non-descript if not for twinkling eyes and a bushy Walrus mustache. As we bounced along deeper and deeper into Alaska’s Denali National Park, John provided “a few words.” Our attention was riveted by his encyclopaedic knowledge of the park, its history, inhabitants, topography, flora and fauna.
Riding John’s bus was no accident. My son’s girlfriend, who worked in the park, had insisted on it. We are forever in her debt. Bus is the only way into this enormous park spanning an area larger than Massachusetts. The crown jewel is Mount McKinley (or Denali), at 20,320 feet the highest mountain in North America. McKinley is generally shrouded in clouds, but when she “came out” briefly, it took our breath away.
Adventuresome trekkers would get off the buses for hikes. Each time we picked up a new rider, John would restart his spiel. “Hi, my name’s John,” he would utter in his deadpan delivery, “What’s your name?” He would then repeat verbatim a brief and light-hearted orientation for every traveler. John harbored a respect for all living things, including those human. You felt valued on John’s bus.
Bumping along through the scrub and tundra, we searched the terrain. John instructed us to keep voices low and how to report animal sightings. Eventually, someone murmured, “Two o’clock – caribou.” John quietly slowed. Like obedient children, we carefully pulled down the top windows to snap photos. Later, we spotted a Dall sheep atop a cliff and later still, a female moose grazing halfway up a hill.
For the next few hours, we rode in silence, occasionally punctuated by yet another of John’s fascinating vignettes. It struck me this was the furthest north and deepest into wilderness I had ever ventured. Finally, a hushed but urgent “Four o’clock.” John eased the bus to a halt. We held our collective breath as a family of grizzlies crossed the road just behind our bus. Momma Bear and three cubs proceeded to munch on berries and leaves in a meadow by the side of the road. We gazed spellbound, silent.
We drove back brandishing a broom attached to John’s side view mirror. Other bus drivers going in gave us the thumbs up. We were puffed up like warriors triumphant in our mutual quest. We felt bonded to one another and to the animals of Denali. Thanks, John, for helping us sweep the clutter and detritus of civilization from our minds. If for only a moment, we were truly transfixed.