“You boys armed?”
That was the question, asked almost 45 years ago when Bob Keller and I walked into a small dark saloon in Skagway, Alaska. Our interrogator was a burly woman – yet sharp around the edges like a fine skinning knife. Her edges had been honed and tempered by years standing in the same spot, dealing with the rough and tumble of Alaska life.
I guess – no we did – look pretty scruffy after driving up the Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek to Whitehorse, a journey of just under 800 miles of mostly mud. Anyone in Whitehorse who had business in Skagway in those days bought a ticket on the White Pass and Yukon Route – a train that made the day-long trip over the White Pass with stops in Carcross and at Lake Bennett – and the only way you could get there from here.
“Yes,” I answered, thinking she must have been joking about our appearance, not guns.
“Well, you can’t drink in here if you’re armed.”
“Only kidding,” I replied. Her eyebrows shot up in a don’t-try-to-BS-me stare that had me seeking cover. “No guns,” I reiterated.
“Open up them coats and raise your arms, Goddamn it!” Keller gave me a look. He was a strict bourbon man in those days and the paucity of that commodity in weeks of traveling through Canada had put him off his feed. And my banter was about to get between him and a bottle of Jack Daniels that gleamed behind the bar.
The only other customer in the place lifted his face off the bar to watch. Our hostess stomped around to the customer side of the bar. “Raise em up, I said,” she ordered.
We did. No guns.
Welcome to Alaska. This was why two newly discharged U.S. Marines drove thousands of miles, from Southern California to the Yukon Territory. As far from civilization as we could get. Bob had his bourbon, and I ordered a scotch – always in good supply in Canada.
In 1971, Skagway was a couple of blocks of dilapidated buildings, long since shorn of paint by howling wind, salt air, snow and neglect. The fall air chilled to the bone. A few piles of snow melted slowly in the shadows of buildings. Standing in front of the old saloon, we could see Skagway Inlet a few hundred yards distant, and the steep mountains that squeezed town and inlet into a narrow crack of space.
A chill wind blew in off the inlet, then whispered and sighed around the old buildings and through the trees. I could hear other things as well — the sounds of 1898 carried through time on the moving air. And this was why I came.
The train we rode was a long line of ore cars with a passenger car cum caboose tacked onto the end. The seats were wood benches and heat came from a small pot belly stove in one corner. That caboose could have had a spot on any nineteenth century train in North America.
This was the very Skagway that greeted gold rushers by the thousands in 1898. The echos from that time were so strong then, that I am able to conjure them up even today. During the rush, Skagway sported something like 84 saloons, and although the saloon population had dwindled to just two or three when we arrived in 1971, I could still close my eyes and tromp up Main Street in the mud with hundreds of others. I could listen to the excited cacophony of folks soon to be rich or busted, and the smart ones who found their bonanza right there in Skagway, six hundred miles from the Klondike. This is the image I have carried for 45 years.
Nowadays, a 100-mile highway connects Skagway to the Alaska Highway just outside of Whitehorse. The train no longer runs from Whitehorse – you have to drive to Frazer or Carcross to catch it, and they have real passenger cars now. Ignoring these subtle harbingers of change, I clung to my original vision as we drove the “new” road. I was not prepared for the gut-punch that awaited me down on Skagway Inlet, because now there is yet another way to get there.
The country, of course, is magnificent; green, wild and filled with life. An old saw once declared that the human body was 98% water. I think you could say the same for this country, rivers, lakes, snow, waterfalls, creeks, cataracts and rain reign in abundance.
As we descended the steep grade into town, the first thing I saw peeking above the trees was the monstrous bridge of a cruise ship. Oh, Oh. Once on the main street, three more cruise-ship bridges appeared. Skagway had reinvented itself, or more likely, cruise ship operators did. Now, instead of the lonely but authentic, almost-ghost town I encountered years ago, Skagway had turned into a blocks-long jewelry store, catering to hordes of souvenir-hungry cruise ship denizens – tough folks who came to experience life under the midnight sun from a luxury suite on a Holland America cruise ship. Pioneers.
My Skagway had degenerated into a plastic village. Echoes and whispers snuffed out. A Knott’s Berry Farm, north. A European vision of Frontier Land. Buildings, old and new, were now brightly painted and the wooden boardwalks filled with folks. Hawkers with strange accents stepped out of shops to accost passersby. Cruise ships now obscured the view of the inlet.
Tour buses, vans and other vehicles plied the streets. It would seem that the get-rich-quick syndrome that made Skagway in the first place had emerged from long hibernation. But this time the golden mother lode had a different source – a P.T. Barnum vein as wide as Main Street where there’s a “… sucker born every minute.”
My metaphysical connection to the Trail of ’98, the mushers, miners, merchants and madams took one look, screamed and retreated to a deep and unreachable place.
I suppose there is another side to all of this. And the chaos of Main Street, Skagway today could approximate the glory days of ’98. Here a dying town was revitalized, repainted and renewed. Surely there is some good in there for someone – even if it is starkly phony.
I didn’t stick around to find out – but fled in a desperate attempt to reconnect with the memory I had held for 45 years.
I wonder what that burly bar tender would think if she could see today’s imitation. As we moved away from the downtown horror and back up the road toward Whitehorse, recollections peeped out from the places to which they had retreated. And there was Bob again, happy to have found a few bourbon whiskies and some Native Americans to fleece at the pool table, and the other customer in the saloon complaining that after 14 years in Skagway, locals continued to view him as an outsider.
I will continue to cling to the old Skagway, but it’s hard to remember the forest after the trees have all been cut down.