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Posts Tagged ‘Skagway’

Once again I was approaching the Canadian Customs and Immigration station on the Klondike Highway. Looking ahead I could see that the wait would be at least 15 minutes if not longer.  We  had just crossed the summit of the White Pass, and images-8I’d been telling the guests on my tour bus about the “one ton rule.”  During the 1898 Gold Rush, the Mounties required the Argonauts as the gold seekers were called, to carry an estimated one year supply of food with them as a condition for entering the country.  Now as we waited at the border I considered what story I might tell to pass the time as we sat there waiting to show our passports before proceeding into British Columbia and then into the Yukon Territory.

Then it occurred to me.  The border!  Why not give the Gold Rush a rest and tell a smuggling story!  “Folks,” I confided in a mock conspiratorial tone, “let me tell you…”

I introduced them to  Mullah Nasruddin, or the Hodja as he is also known, the often foolish but somehow wise hero of hundreds of tales told in coffee houses across the middle east and beyond.

Once a week Nasruddin crossed the border pushing a wheelbarrow heavily laden with merchandise.  One week the wheelbarrow was full of melons, the next week it might have been dates, or bottles of rosewater.  Come each Tuesday morning, Nasruddin would faithfully arrive at the crossing, produce the necessary  paperwork, the border agent would examine his cargo  then wave the Mullah through.  But the agent always suspected that Nasruddin was pulling the wool over his eyes and engaged in some kind of smuggling racket.  Try as hard as he could though to catch him in the act, the agent couldn’t catch him in the act.  Week after week, month after month, and then year after year, a wheelbarrow full of this, that or the other thing  and  the agent growing increasingly frustrated, sure that Nasruddin was having a great laugh at his expense.

Now it was many years later.  Both men had retired and one day they encountered each other sitting at adjacent tables at a coffee house.images-12

“Nasruddin,” you old rascal.  “You can tell me now.  I have no authority, You’re beyond the reach of the law.  All those many years when I would see question you each week, I suspected that you’d been smuggling something .  Admit it! Admit it now and ease my mind.

“Oh yes, indeed my friend.  It is true. Your suspicions were well founded and I profited greatly each week with my clandestine cargo.”

“Tell me, tell me,!  must know or it will drive me crazy!  Just what was it that you were smuggling?” the agent fairly begged.

With a great sly grin, Nasruddin replied, “ Wasn’t it obvious?  I was smuggling… wheelbarrows!”images-9

I would have occasion to tell it dozen’s of times over the course of the summer while waiting either to cross into Canada or back into Alaska. Once, I even told it to one of the U.S customs officials as we sat at a cafe at adjacent tables in Skagway.

“ That story is truer than you even think,” he told me, and then related that when he was working at the U.S and Mexican border, there was a guy who came across often with a bicycle heavily laden with merchandise.  Eventually the agent figured out that he was crossing into the U.S. with a new bike and returning with a beaten up one, and that he was smuggling… bicycles!

Sometimes it takes a long time to catch on to something ‘hiding in plain sight.’

In one venue or another, I’ve been telling the Nasruddin wheelbarrow story for years, but it was just the other day on the way to the Taos storytelling festival when I saw this story in a way that I’d never thought about it before.  This is not uncommon for storytellers.  .  Another layer of the onion peels off to reveal  a previously unrecognized  dimension of a tale. Here I am thinking that I’m bringing people to a wading pool, and unknown to me someone in the audience is off in the deep end of meanings and associations.

Storyteller as “Smuggler!”   Wittingly or unwittingly, we carry messages across borders and boundaries, stealthily slipping in meaning that is reveals later when the time or conditions are right.   I thought I was telling a story about smuggling wheelbarrows and lo and behold, I finally figure out that it can be construed as story about smuggling stories!

When they could afford it, the Klondike gold seekers would hire Tlingit packers to haul their good up the passes.  Their strength and endurance was legendary.
Still, all who watched one day were astonished when one Tlingit man strapped a cast iron stove on his back and without faltering proceeded to make the long ascent the summit.  As a crowd at the top looked on in astonishment, he put the stove down, then opened it’s door, and took out a 50 pound sack of flour!

Storyteller!  You approach your listeners with a story. You’re at a border. ( of the storyteller/story/listener)  Here’s the agent waiting for you with a question.  Just what are you packing in that story bag?

images-11(Fellow storytellers… what story have you discovered hiding in your stories?)

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It was early  April and I was anticipating and preparing for what I imagined it was going to be like to deal with the cruise ship passengers that would soon be on my tours out of Skagway. I did the math.  20 weeks, 6 days a week  2 tours a day, maybe an average of 18 people per tour.  Depending on how it went, I figured there would be between 3500 and 4500 people by the end of the season.  Where would they come from and what would they be like?  I would be responsible for their safety and comfort while educating and entertaining them on tours that  would last from 2 to almost 7 hours.

My mind turned to a poem by Carl Sandburg, The People, Yes,  and one of the sections that has become a kind of compass for me regarding human behavior.

“Drove up a newcomer in a covered wagon: “What kind of folks live around here?”
“Well, stranger, what kind of folks was there in the country you come from?”
“Well, they was mostly a lowdown, lying, thieving gossiping, backbiting kind lot of people.”
“Well, I guess, stranger, that’s about the kind of folks you’ll find around here.”
And the dusty gray stranger had just about blended into the dusty gray cottonwoods in a clump on the horizon when another newcomer drove up: “What kind of folks live around here?”
“Well, stranger, what kind of folks was there in the country you come from?”
“Well, they was mostly a decent, hard-working, law-abiding, friendly lot of people.” “Well, I guess, stranger, that’s about the kind of folks you’ll find around here.”

So this is how I generally approach situations.  I mostly expect the decent, friendly people, and I generally find them.

Still, with the numbers involved, I figured I’d be seeing some of the exceptions, and so this is how I prepared.

Cue the movie Taxi Driver. De Niro is rehearsing,  looking in the mirror, priming himself for a deadly encounter.  “ You talking to me?  You talking to me?”  Out comes the imaginary gun… bang, bang, bang!

I anticipated that the two most difficult situations I’d face would be,

#1… people in awe of scenery, gazing at the far horizons, and me with a schedule to keep.  It wouldn’t be easy or fun to interrupt their reverie…Hey Bob, Get back on the bus!

#2  complete jerks…. arrogant, demanding, and abusive.

I figured I could respond to each with a well practiced phrase.

For the awe-struck, it would be
“Will everyone kindly return to the bus.”

For the exceptionally bad case… the 1 in 4500
“ Get the “ F” off my bus!”

Maybe it was my own determination and upbeat introduction that soothed would be savage beasts. I’m not saying that there weren’t more than a few folks who seemed that they might have been dragged by their partners into a day excursion when they might have preferred to stay on the ship during rainy weather and played cards. There were a number, not many, who just couldn’t seem to get excited about anything. There was one, only one, and I found out about her at the end of the trip, who faked a diabetic emergency, causing me to shorten a trip, because as it turned out she didn’t like the fact, as her husband later told me, that there was a 2 year old on the bus making some noises.  But that was as bad as it got.

Now that the daily tide of passengers has come and gone I can honestly report that I never even came close to having to ‘Go DiNiro!’

Oh… and how did I handle “ Will everyone kindly return to the bus?”  I delegated!

Years ago I attended an Environmental Education Conference and went to a session run by a park ranger at Yosemite.  He shared a story that had always stuck and this year I put it to use.

He told us that parking cars at Yosemite Valley had been a nightmare.  “ I’d stand there in my uniform, with my shiny badge and official ranger hat… tell people to turn right and they’d turn left or just completely ignore me.  Then I got the idea to put a bear puppet on my ‘traffic hand.’  After that, when my bear puppet told people to turn to the left, they always turned to the left.  No one ever disobeys a puppet!”

IMG_2735And so when I had a kid on board who was between about 5-10 years old,  towards the beginning of a tour, I’d tell everyone that the hardest part of my job would be getting them back on the bus, interrupting reverie, etc.  Then I’d tell the Yosemite story, produce a wolf puppet and find a young volunteer, or several to share the responsibilities.  It worked every time!  Parents loved that I was involving their kids on a trip mostly geared to adults, and I had some mighty fine deputy guides!

So of the minions who shared part of their Alaska adventure with me, can I pick out my very favorite guests?

I’ve forgotten their names, but these two women ride on in my memory.  It was on a long tour.  All day they were beaming, enthusiastic about everything we were did and saw and very vocal about it, not at all shy about showing their excitement.  Several hours after the tour, we ran into each other on the street, and I learned a little about their story.

They were from New York City,  one Italian, the other Puerto Rican, and had known each IMG_3146other since 1st grade.  Here’s the part that blew me away.  In first grade they had made a pact with each other that some day they would travel to Alaska together.  (Where that idea came from I forgot to ask.  When I was in 2nd grade I was watching Sgt. Preston of the Yukon on T.V. maybe that was it for me!)  They made a second pact with each other as well.  They both wanted to be New York City policewomen so that they could help people in their communities.  (early advocates of community policing!)  And this trip was the culmination of that first pact.  They’d made it to Alaska!  And what made it possible?  They had both just retired after full careers with the New York City Police Dept.!  What a privilege to be their guide!

(Throw a log on the story fire.  What long held dream came true.  What long held dream will you see through?)

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