Editor’s note: The following is in no way endorsed by the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau and admittedly unfairly maligns a location that might — possibly, potentially, perhaps — not be as bad as it seems. Maybe.
By Jenny Neyman
Hell, as usually envisioned, is a nebulous, nefarious concept — its thermostat cranked to a degree above that required to deep fry a turkey, its location indistinguishable to even Google Maps. It is theoretically just out there, lurking somewhere on the metaphysical plane, presumably one very wrong turn way, way south of other unchartable locales, such as “over the rainbow,” easy street or funky town.
For me, hell is quite distinct. I can circle it on a map. It has its own zip code and three-digit phone prefix. There are street signs, a Starbucks and — somewhere in the vicinity of the Tongass Avenue McDonald’s — a nylon, neon green-and-hot-pink, Velcro-closure wallet with $30 that I lost on a basketball trip in the seventh grade. It’s on an island 235 miles south of Juneau and 667 miles north of Seattle. It rains there. A lot. An average of 229 days a year. It’s rarely warm enough to warrant sandals, much less to scald the feet of the poor souls who reside there, presumably cast out from more pleasant territory, such as Bangladesh in the 1970s.
To be fair, I don’t mean Ketchikan, the actual community, is hell. I’m sure it’s got its finer qualities. Like … . Well, I hear they’ve got an amphibious bus/boat tour of the harbor. And at one time there was a Ms. Pac-Man machine at the Super 8 hotel with a high score set by yours truly. Ray Troll lives there, so it can’t be all bad.
Clearly, my stance isn’t well researched. That’s because I haven’t voluntarily been there in well over 15 years. But I have been there, several times, in those years. Been exiled, is more like it.
Flying to any of the smaller communities in Southeast necessitates taking the “milk run” on Alaska Airlines, of which there is one northbound and one southbound flight daily. It’s a series of puddle jumps connecting the smaller islands equipped with airport terminals to the larger regional hubs.Ketchikan is the southernmost puddle to and from which you jump in Alaska. As such it’s the chunky dregs of the milk run, because if you end up there without booking it as your destination, then your travel plans have seriously soured.
Such was the case on a recent snowy Saturday. I was catching the northbound milk run in Wrangell as it hopped from Seattle to Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau and on to Anchorage. The weather was closing in — not an uncommon occurrence anywhere in Alaska, but a bit unique in Southeast. Being a rainforest, precipitation is near constant. It’s either raining or about to start. What Southeast considers a sprinkle, most of the rest of the state would call a flood warning. So when the usually moderate winter temperatures dip enough below freezing for rain to turn to snow, it’s some serious snow. Akin to what you might imagine to be the weather if hell froze over — big, wet, thick, dense, meaty flakes, more like flounders plopping to the ground than delicate ice crystals floating from the heavers. And it comes from pea-soup clouds that slosh between the islands like beer in a Solo cup at a university frat house.
And did I mention the wind? Because storms don’t waft in and out of Southeast, dallying with the air currents like the aroma of baking bread. They rend the atmosphere like an espresso-machine screech in a yoga class.
If your flight path happens to intersect these conditions, your plans will be up in the air as surely as your flight will not be. The jet left Wrangell as the snow started. The wind kicked up as we got in and out of Petersburg. By the time we got to Juneau visibility was down to a mile — far less than the four miles required for a visual approach — and the wind was howling 70 mph up Gastineau Channel, the route required for instrument landings.
We circled for a while, seemingly only to placate those on board hoping to make a connecting flight below, and those below hoping to claim their reserved seats above. A half hour later the weather hadn’t improved and we didn’t have enough fuel to make it to Anchorage. That meant turning around to the nearest airport with both fuel and somewhat better landing conditions.
Updating my parents, whom I’d been visiting, upon arrival conveyed my physical location as well my euphemistic one:
“I’m in Ketchikan.”
Translation: This trip has gone to hell.
I know, I know —First World problems, right? Quit whining before the universe gives me something worth whining about.
But the evil beauty of hell is that it’s eminently customizable. For a stickler on maintaining personal space, hell is being stuck in a crowded elevator with a close talker. For a football fanatic, it’s having a girlfriend who wants to talk about the relationship on a Sunday morning or Monday evening in playoff season.
For me, type A is for the angst I feel when my schedule gets derailed. If I have to be somewhere or do something, time is allotted in fractional increments, exactly and stingily. My margin for error isn’t wiggle room as much as squirm time if traffic is heavy, a line moves slowly or a meeting drags into overtime.
Each of the many times I’ve overheaded to Ketchikan over the years has meant a frustrated recalculating of agendas to try to compensate for the delay, while schlepping luggage through the ever-present rain (you will never convince me the sunny, blue-sky promotional photos on Ketchikan visitor guides aren’t completely fabricated) to find a dryish corner in which to huddle until the next flight or ferry comes to get me the hell out of that personal hell.
At least, that’s my initial reaction. But inevitably the disruption becomes nothing more than a visit to Get Over Yourself. Population: me.
Yes, it’s unpleasant when a 23-minute fight stretches into six hours, during which you’re stuck on board, with no food or fresh air, the entire time. But you know for whom that’s really unpleasant? The smoker seated behind me. The elderly diabetic man across the aisle and his very nervous wife next to me, pushing fruit juice at him like Billy Mays peddling OxiClean on the Home Shopping Network. The mom with four kids under 10 a few rows back. The self-important egotist a few rows ahead deprived of his supposedly requisite special treatment.
And, especially, the flight attendants tasked with managing the ill tempers of the crowd. As the same four-song playlist of jumping-the-seasonal-gun Christmas tunes cued up for its 20-somethingth rotation, the passengers probably would have revolted, were it not for their collective low blood sugar from not having eaten since early that morning.
It was about that time that I came to my usual Ketchikan-induced epiphany: You can’t prevent life going to hell at times. All you can control is how you react to it. In this case, I can plan ahead a little better on future trips and not leave so much to do that I depend on fully utilizing those now-lost last minutes. I can pack a snack. I can avoid developing a nicotine dependence because, man, was that guy miserable. I can shoot out speakers the next time I hear the beginning strains of “Little Drummer Boy” — I mean, I can be more patient.
And I can try harder to look on the bright side. Even on a snowy/rainy, windy, cloudy, uncomfortable, time-waste of a day, things could be worse. The pilots could have been less safe and actually tried to land in Juneau, surfing the 70-mph gusts. The endlessly looping Christmas carols could have been — shudder — “Alvin and the Chipmunks” renditions.
Or, hell, worst of all, I could actually be intending to spend time in Ketchikan.
Jenny Neyman is a reporter and editor for the Redoubt Reporter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Though she loves her hometown of Wrangell, she means no disrespect to Ketchikan.