I never imagined I’d visit Alaska, so one of the delights of the cruise is the surprise of seeing this extraordinary place (though mostly from sail-by range, since our shore visits are pretty brief, only a few hours long). With only half a million residents, and a mostly punishing climate, it doesn’t attract people looking for the comforts of civilization.
The Nation cruise was welcomed in Juneau–incredibly the state capital, with something like 32,000 residents–with a rally sponsored by the local chapter of Veterans for Peace. It feels very good to go to a place this remote from the magazine’s New York headquarters and discover how much the publication is valued. (Liza and I had a similar experience in, of all places, Hobart, Tasmania, when we visited in 2001. Of course, that was just one subscriber, not scores at a rally.) Aside from that welcome, Juneau consists of a lot of “frontier” shops that welcome the four cruise ships (collective population about 8,000) that are usually docked in the harbor in the summer and try to relieve the visitors of some of their discretionary income.
A couple of days later, we stopped in Ketchikan, a city of about 8,000 that is even more incredibly the state’s fourth largest. As we were walking around downtown on an unusually warm and sunny day, we ran into a couple of locals and started talking with them. I asked what happened to all the tourist shops in the winter when the cruise ships were tooling around the Caribbean instead of the frigid Alaskan waters. One of the Ketchikaners–who now found the town too crowded and moved out into the hills outside of town–said they get boarded up and their proprietors head down to the Caribbean themselves. Of about forty jewelry stores, only one is locally owned. The principal occupation of many, he told me, is selling drugs, and the jewelry shops are a fine way to launder the proceeds.
Ketchikan used to be a rough town. The New York Hotel, on the main drag, used to rent rooms for $2 a night. Next door was a strip club. Up the street was a red-light district. Then in the early 1990s the cruise ships started coming. The New York hotel was renovated and jacked its room rates up to $100-150. The strip club closed, and the red light district is now memorialized by Dolly’s, a museum and gift shop with a woman in nineteenth-century prostitute’s dress chatting up passersby.
Memo to Annabelle: no apology necessary on the diapers. The personal is political, after all.