Calling a Cab in Skagway at 4AM – The Traveler in Alaska

Sometimes things don’t go as planned. And we shouldn’t assume that they will. One of a series of travel vignettes as The Traveler makes his way through Alaska


There is a certain finality in feeling the engines of the Matanuska shift into low gear as she approaches the final dock of the trip, the purser taps at our door softly, yet with a trace of urgency, “Skagway in forty-five minutes”. The clock says 3AM.

"Thank you.”

Though I don’t feel that thankful.

The past twenty-six hours has created a bond with the ship – the old Mat – and I feel as if she is kicking me out of bed in the middle of the night, into a dark and strange place.

The engine continues to change pitch and timbre as the Mat negotiates the final few feet into dock at Skagway. We began our sea journey at Ketchikan, the gateway to the Inside Passage, arriving at Skagway, the gateway to the Klondike, at the northern reach of the inland waterways  – at 3:45AM.

We join the group of bleary-eyed travelers in the little lobby by the purser’s office. I reluctantly hand in our keys to cabin 25C.

A knot of tired, cranky people wait, positioning for a spot in the small elevator down to the car deck to walk off the boat – egress and ingress being somewhat unceremonious on a ferry – a real working boat, unlike the fancy-schmancy floating high-rise hotels that can’t get into places along the Passage like the fine, solid Matanuska can.

Despite Jayne’s concern, I opt to manhandle the luggage down the stars to the car deck instead of waiting for the elevator, smack into a wall of RV’s in the process of backing-up in preparation of exiting off the boat.

Jayne and I walk the ramp onto land, heeding the direction of the man in the orange vest pointing us toward the passenger terminal.

We enter the lobby looking for the Australians. The Australians are the group of four from Down Under that have been apparently booked on the same independent travel itinerary – the same broken ferry that put as all on the Mat, the same stinking hell-hole (don’t get me started) of a motel in Ketchikan, and what appears to be the same – yet separate – travel plan that Chip at AlaskaPass has prepared for us.

We fully expected that they too, would be staying at Sgt. Preston’s Lodge. And, like us, they are relying on Chip’s assurances that a call to the establishment will bring forth a van in the night to take us to a room. A place where we could continue sleeping. The middle of the night being generally a good time for such activity.

I didn’t feel good about this particular connection, but Chip had assured me before leaving that Sgt. Preston would march over at any time, day or night. Since he told me this in the process of adjusting plans due to the Columbia’s rod-throwing episode, I assumed he had actually informed the good Sargent to actually expect us on this particular night…

Ah, I assumed.

Well then, let’s just guess the direction this tale goes now.

In fact, the Australians were nowhere to be found, leaving a bit of ill ease in their absence.

Nonetheless, ever hopeful, I dialed the number to Sgt. Preston’s Lodge, the phone rang, and a recorded woman’s voice told me:

“The Sargent is out on patrol, and the front desk clerk is AWOL.”

AWOL indeed.

I listened to the message telling me that Sgt. Preston’s Lodge was good and closed, staring bleakly at the young German-speaking bohemian travelers spreading out their sleeping bags in a corner of the ferry terminal, waiting for life to begin again in Skagway.

No Australians, no Sgt. Preston’s, in Skagway, it’s 4AM.

A simple yet earnest looking man with a top hat and thick mustache approaches, wondering if we are going to the Westmark, or looking for a walking tour.

A sense of the surreal  suddenly pervades the terminal. Camped out Germans, a man in a top hat asking if we want a walking tour of Skagway at 4AM, no Australians, no Sgt. Preston’s.

I tell the man in the top hat that we are hoping for a pickup to Sgt. Preston’s and he says “Oh, he won’t be around for hours”.

Oh really?

At least the Germans brought along sleeping bags, though they certainly don’t look very comfortable as I watch them try to sleep.

Ah, to sleep, perchance to dream.

The man in a top hat comes back, apologizing for being abrupt (he wasn’t really), and begins listing the best places to get coffee and breakfast in two hours.

Getting a cup of coffee will be a two hour wait.

It’s not that Jayne and I can’t suck it up, if we have to, and curl up on a couple of plastic chairs.  Been there, done that. I have a growing desire for Chip to share in this experience and consider calling his office.

Suddenly a ray of smiling sunshine enters the the terminal in the form of a short, later-middle-aged black woman asking of anyone needs a ride to the…

wait for it…

Westmark Hotel.

She looks at me and smiles expectantly, assuming that we’re the type that will be needing a ride to the Westmark Hotel from the Ferry Terminal in Skagway at 4AM.

But, alas, we are not. We are the charges of the good Sargent – who is out on patrol. And the front desk clerk is AWOL.

I glumly watch Anita drive away with the few people smart enough to not make assumptions with any connection that involves the hours between midnight and 6AM.

I wait another thirty minutes and call Sgt. Preston’s: On patrol. AWOL.

Okay that isn’t happening. We’ll probably not get a room there until this afternoon. Chip at AlaskaPass has dropped the ball. And I assumed he wouldn’t. We’re both losers in this story.

I make an executive decision and call the Westmark from the courtesy phone on the wall.

Anita answers.

I suppress my desperation, “Do you have any rooms available – right now?”

“Yes”, says Anita.

I proceed to tell my tale of woe, starting with the Columbia throwing a rod.

Anita agrees to come get us.

Twenty minutes later the van shows up once again and a very grateful couple loads in for the  three minute drive to the hotel.

In that time we learn that Anita actually came up on the Columbia earlier in the month to work the last part of the season. This is her third season working the summer in Alaska. And she lives in Lansing, Michigan, with a son in Atlanta.

Anita is not only helpful, but she is cheerful and appears happy to help these two wayward travelers in the middle of the night.

I am sure that some picture must have just fallen off the wall at the Super-&$!!)-8 in Ketchikan, as the fight between good and evil is played out in hotel customer service.

It is now 4:45AM

We walk into the lobby of the Westmark hotel and I find myself face-to-face with the man in a top hat. Behind him is a crowd of elderly people milling about in the lobby.

He looks at me and goes, “oh…”

I say brightly, “We decided to come here!”

About five minutes later the man in top hat leads the crowd of elderly tourists out into the night, just the faintest hint of dawn lightening the jagged mountain horizon to the east.

The sense of the surreal I began to feel in the ferry terminal deepens, cooks a little in my brain, in an almost transcendent way. If I could get some sleep, I’d be having a dream just like this. Or maybe it is a dream and I will awake in our cabin on the Mat, the engine pulsing quietly beneath me.

I start to wonder what Sargent Preston actually does when he’s out on patrol, and if he, occasionally, does it with the man in the top hat.

Anita is immersed in a maintenance issue, dashing in and out of the building with a flashlight, so Jayne takes a seat and I wander to a part of the lobby that has a television going twenty-four hours a day,

I look at the screen. I listen to the voices.

Alberto Gonzales has resigned.

This is a dream!!

I am convinced now that I have slipped into another dimension, a parallel universe. That somewhere else is another version of me, sitting in the Ferry Terminal in Skagway at five in the morning, dialing the number yet again to Sgt. Preston’s Lodge.

The Sargent is out on patrol… on patrol… on patrol…

Anita comes back, puts her flashlight away, sells us a room for two nights (the first night steadily brightening into day) and, key in hand, we walk across the street to our humble room and collapse in grateful exhaustion.

As I turn out the light, the clock says 5:55AM

Soon, I am dreaming.

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