Saturday, May 19, 2007

I pretend I'm a tourist

I figured out a way to hike up a mountain without actually having to walk back down. The Mount Roberts trail wends through the rainforst, switchbacks up a steep slope and, in the last half mile, disappears beneath neck-high layer of crusty snow. Then, right at treeline, and just when you think you can climb no further lest you risk being swept away in an avalanche, you reach the Mount Roberts Tramway. You can purchase some useless trinkets, gawk at caged bald eagle with a bullet hole through its beak, buy a $5 cup of coffee and coast effortlessly back to sea level via the Mount Roberts Tram.

I arrived at the platform just in time to catch the 5:45. A rush of tourists, nearly every single one clutching a red bag from the $5 T-shirt shop, wedged me in next to the driver. He rattled off the safety spiel and we shot downward.

“How are you liking Juneau?" the driver asked me.

I paused for a second, considering the part of a tourist. “It’s pretty cool,” I said. I couldn’t think of what to add to that, so I said, “I saw your bald eagle.”

“Pretty sad, huh?” he said. “But it’s OK. Eagles are like rats here. They’re more of a pest than anything.”

“Sad about that one, though,” I said.

“So have you checked out the glacier yet?” he asked me. I realized he must be feeding me the standard tourist questions. It’s probably part of his job, part of a quota he has charted somewhere on his employee mission statement.

“Yeah ... you guys should wash that thing once in a while,” I said and flashed him my most earnest smile. He didn’t even flinch.

“At least you got a nice day today,” he said. “Usually I have to explain to people why it’s raining all the time.”

“Oh really? You have an explanation for that?”

Again, he didn’t even flinch. I considered my next dumb tourist question, but before I could say anything, someone from the back of the tram shouted, “Look! A bear!” I turned my head to look out the window. Sure enough, a yearling black bear was ambling up the hillside no more than 100 feet above town.

“We’ve spotted him a couple of times,” the tram driver said, more loudly so everyone could hear him. “His mom’s around here somewhere. She’s a much bigger bear.”

As my fellow tourists murmured and cooed, I said to the driver, “Wow. That’s really cool that you can see bears from here.”

“There are bears everywhere,” he said. “We see them all the time. They’re like dogs here.”

“Really,” I said as the tram lurched to a stop. “I would have never guessed.”