We wanted to take an airplane fight around the mountain, but the tour company said all we would see there was fog, so mostly we ate, drank and souvenir-shopped. For two days, we tried to get a glimpse of the mountain, to no result. The souvenir shops were full of t-shirts that read “I Saw Denali.” They weren’t selling particularly well.
Denali was called Mt. McKinley when I was young, but its name was changed by both the state and the federal governments some time back to the original Native Alaskan name for it, which literally means “The Great One,” or “The Tall One.” Giving stuff creative names is one area where indigenous peoples fall short, obviously.
I settled for buying a t-shirt that read "Alaska--The Great Land," because most of the other ones read "Alaska--Founded 1959," and I don't like to be reminded that I am older than some states.
We hopped another dome car back to Anchorage, where we planned to rent a car and drive down to Seward. Renting the car was the most annoying experience of the trip. I had booked a room right by the airport, where the rental cars live, but after a quick Uber jaunt there, I discovered the line at the Avis counter was a dozen deep and there was only one clerk processing the rental agreements. She was tied up with a middle-aged gay couple who apparently viewed the car-rental process with deep suspicion, because there were a great many time-consuming questions asked and several consultative phone calls made by them before they reluctantly agreed to take a car. Seriously, I have watched people get legally married in less time.
When it was finally my turn at the counter, I tossed my license and credit card on the counter briskly, intending to impress the counter person with the fact that I was intimately familiar with the car rental process and wanted it to proceed quickly. This did not cut me much slack with Avis. I was informed that because I was early for my appointment, I would not get the cozy little economy car I had reserved, but would have to be upgraded to a full-size sedan, for a few hundred dollars more. Knowing my credit cards were already radiating from the first four days of the trip, I agreed without much argument, and went down into the Avis basement to procure my wheels.
They brought up a brand-new Chevy Impala, which unfortunately was not full of gas. Anyone who has ever rented a car knows that accepting one that doesn’t have a full tank of gas is a bigger mistake than test-firing your pepper spray indoors.
“Hey,” I said to the basement counter guy, “This car is only three-quarters full.”
He looked to be a Native Alaskan, as was the other guy behind the counter. They immediately agreed the car needed filling up, and cheerfully informed me they wouldn’t be doing it—I would have to wait for the “detailer,” who was no doubt responsible for failing to gas up my ride in the first place, to do it. “Five minutes,” they lied.
Forty-five minutes later I was still standing on the curb, thinking to myself “I’ve only been here four days, and already I hate these goddamn Eskimos.”
Which only proves that my default mode, like most other people’s, is racism.
When my car was finally filled and ready, I got behind the wheel and realized that it had way more bells and whistles than you could find at a Bells and Whistles R Us outlet store. It was like me getting a brand-new and extremely more complicated cell phone than my last one, except I had to drive it. An alarm tone kept going off, causing me to stop and check the doors and trunk several times before I realized that the tone was sounding every time the car crossed a line on the road. It had a little camera that spotted the wheels touching any line, from the shoulder to the center divider. It bonged every time I changed lanes.
I don't need a car that tells me I’m swerving all over the road—I have a woman for that—but I didn’t want to waste precious vacation moments trying to figure out how disable the feature, so the car just bonged all the way to Seward, which was a pretty ride to a pretty town where you can get delicious if somewhat pricey seafood for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Unfortunately, we had both been exposed to a nasty upper-respiratory virus in Denali, which eventually landed my Significant Other in the hospital with pneumonia, because she likes to max out every illness she contracts. It hit us pretty hard on the last day of our trip, so we were mighty feverish when our flight took off from Anchorage the next morning. The pilot warned us that we might see Denali after we climbed to cruising altitude, and sure enough, after a few minutes, he babbled excitedly, “There it is! There’s Denali! On the left side of the plane!”
We were on the right side of the plane, of course, and had to look for the mountain across the cabin and out the windows of the passengers on the other side, who were not being helpful by whipping out their cell phones for pics of the Great One. It’s also a snow-capped mountain situated in a mass of white clouds, not making it the easiest thing to pick out of the background.
And I was sick. But I guess I saw it. Should have bought the other t-shirt.